Is There a Present Test?.

Complexities inherent in the myriad varieties of expression encompassed by the First Amendment guarantees of speech, press, and assembly probably preclude any single standard for determining the presence of First Amendment protection. For certain forms of expression for which protection is claimed, the Court engages in “definitional balancing” to determine that those forms are outside the range of protection.560 Balancing is in evidence to enable the Court to determine whether certain covered speech is entitled to protection in the particular context in which the question arises.561 Use of vagueness, overbreadth, and less intrusive means may very well operate to reduce the number of occasions when questions of protection must be answered squarely on the merits. What is observable, however, is the re-emergence, at least in a tentative fashion, of something like the clear and present danger standard in advocacy cases, which is the context in which it was first developed. Thus, in Brandenburg v. Ohio,562 a conviction under a criminal syndicalism statute of advocating the necessity or propriety of criminal or terrorist means to achieve political change was reversed. The prevailing doctrine developed in the Communist Party cases was that “mere” advocacy was protected but that a call for concrete, forcible action even far in the future was not protected speech and knowing membership in an organization calling for such action was not protected association, regardless of the probability of success.563 In Brandenburg, however, the Court reformulated these and other rulings to mean “that the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”564 The Court has not revisited these issues since Brandenburg, so the long-term significance of the decision is yet to be determined.565


Thus, obscenity, by definition, is outside the coverage of the First Amendment, Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476 (1957); Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton, 413 U.S. 49 (1973), as are malicious defamation, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), and “fighting words,” Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942). The Court must, of course, decide in each instance whether the questioned expression, as a matter of definition, falls within one of these or another category. See, e.g., Jenkins v. Georgia, 418 U.S. 153 (1974); Gooding v. Wilson, 405 U.S. 518 (1972). [Back to text]
E.g., the multifaceted test for determining when commercial speech is protected, Central Hudson Gas & Electric Co. v. PSC, 447 U.S. 557, 566 (1980); the standard for determining when expressive conduct is protected, United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367, 377 (1968); the elements going into decision with respect to access at trials, Globe Newspaper Co. v. Superior Court, 457 U.S. 596, 606–10 (1982); and the test for reviewing press “gag orders” in criminal trials, Nebraska Press Ass’n v. Stuart, 427 U.S. 539, 562–67 (1976), are but a few examples. [Back to text]
395 U.S. 444 (1969). [Back to text]
Yates v. United States, 354 U.S. 298 (1957); Scales v. United States, 367 U.S. 203 (1961); Noto v. United States, 367 U.S. 290 (1961). See also Bond v. Floyd, 385 U.S. 116 (1966); Watts v. United States, 394 U.S. 705 (1969). [Back to text]
395 U.S. at 447. Subsequent cases relying on Brandenburg indicate the standard has considerable bite, but do not elaborate sufficiently enough to begin filling in the outlines of the test. Hess v. Indiana, 414 U.S. 105 (1973); NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886, 928 (1982). But see Haig v. Agee, 453 U.S. 280, 308–09 (1981). [Back to text]
In Stewart v. McCoy, 537 U.S. 993 (2002), Justice Stevens, in a statement accompanying a denial of certiorari, wrote that, while Brandenburg’s “requirement that the consequence be ‘imminent’ is justified with respect to mere advocacy, the same justification does not necessarily adhere to some speech that performs a teaching function. . . . Long range planning of criminal enterprises—which may include oral advice, training exercises, and perhaps the preparation of written materials— involve speech that should not be glibly characterized as mere ‘advocacy’ and certainly may create significant public danger. Our cases have not yet considered whether, and if so to what extent, the First Amendment protects such instructional speech.” Id. at 995. [Back to text]