Debs v. United States
249 U.S. 211 (1919)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Debs v. United States, 249 U.S. 211 (1919)

Debs v. United States

No. 714

Argued January 27, 28, 1919

Decided March 10, 1919

249 U.S. 211


The delivery of a speech in such word and such circumstances that the probable effect will be to prevent recruiting, and with that intent, is punishable under the Espionage Act of June 15, 1917, c. 30, § 3, 40 Stat. 217, as amended by the Act of May 16, 1918, c. 75, § 1, 40 Stat. 553. P. 249 U. S. 212.

Such a speech is not protected because of the fact that the purpose to oppose the war and obstruct recruiting, and the expressions used in that regard, were but incidental parts of a general propaganda of socialism and expressions of a general and conscientious belief. P. 249 U. S. 215.

In a prosecution for obstructing and attempting to obstruct recruiting, by a speech in which defendant expressed sympathy with others, imprisoned for similar offenses, the ground for whose convictions he purported to understand, held that the records in the other cases were admissible as tending to explain the subject and true import of defendant's remarks and his intent. Id.

In such prosecution, held that a document -- a so-called "Anti-War Proclamation and Program" -- expressing and advocating opposition to the war was admissible against the defendant as evidence of his intent in connection with other evidence that, an hour before his speech, he expressed his approval of such platform. Id.

Semble that persons designated by the Draft Act of May 18, 1917, registered and enrolled under it and thus subject to be called into active service, are part of the military forces of the United States within the meaning of § 3 of the Espionage Act. P. 249 U. S. 216.


The case is stated in the opinion.

Page 249 U. S. 212

Primary Holding
The appropriate test for whether speech is protected under the First Amendment during wartime is whether it poses a clear and present danger.
Eugene Debs delivered a public speech that incited his audience to interfere with military recruitment during the First World War. He was indicted for violating the Espionage Act of 1917 because he was allegedly attempting to cause insubordination and refusal of duty in the U.S. military, as well as attempting to obstruct recruitment and enlistment in the U.S. military. He appealed his conviction on First Amendment grounds.



  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (Author)
  • Edward Douglass White
  • Joseph McKenna
  • William Rufus Day
  • Willis Van Devanter
  • Mahlon Pitney
  • James Clark McReynolds
  • John Hessin Clarke
  • Louis Dembitz Brandeis

Anyone enrolled under the Act of May 18, 1917 could be considered part of the U.S. military, as the jury instructions properly provided. The defendant clearly violated the law by encouraging insubordination and obstruction of recruitment. This posed a clear and present danger to the American war effort, so First Amendment protections should not apply.

Case Commentary

In the historical moment when this case was decided, shortly after the First World War, the Court appeared to find that the danger posed by the speech was more probable and imminent than it seems from a detached perspective in retrospect.

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