Abrams v. United States
250 U.S. 616 (1919)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919)

Abrams v. United States

No. 316

Argued October 21, 22, 1919

Decided November 10, 1919

250 U.S. 616

Syllabus

Evidence sufficient to sustain anyone of several counts of an indictment will sustain a verdict and judgment of guilty under all if the sentence does not exceed that which might lawfully have been imposed under any single count. P. 250 U. S. 619.

Evidence held sufficient to sustain a conviction of conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act by uttering, etc., circulars intended to provoke and encourage resistance to the United States in the war with Germany, and by inciting and advocating, through such circulars, resort to a general strike of workers in ammunition factories for the purpose of curtailing production of ordnance and munitions essential to the prosecution of the war. Pp. 250 U. S. 619 et seq.

When prosecuted under the Espionage Act, persons who sought to effectuate a plan of action which necessarily, before it could be realized, involved the defeat of the plans of the United States for the conduct of the war with Germany must be held to have intended that result notwithstanding their ultimate purpose may have been to prevent interference with the Russian Revolution. P. 250 U. S. 621.

Affirmed.

The case is stated in the opinion.

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Primary Holding

The First Amendment does not protect speech that is designed to undermine the United States in war by fueling sedition and disorder.

Facts

In 1918, the United States participated in a military operation on Russian soil against Germany after the Russian Revolution overthrew the tsarist regime. Russian immigrants in the U.S. saw this use of force in their home country as an effort to undermine the new Soviet government, so they circulated literature calling for a general strike in ammunition plants that would undermine the U.S. war effort. They were charged with violating the Espionage Act.

Opinions

Majority

  • John Hessin Clarke (Author)
  • Edward Douglass White
  • Joseph McKenna
  • William Rufus Day
  • Willis Van Devanter
  • Mahlon Pitney
  • James Clark McReynolds

There are limits on the protections on speech afforded by the First Amendment, and it does not prevent individuals from facing the consequences of their actions. Protections on speech are lower during wartime when the speech has a detrimental effect on national security. The effort of the immigrants to inspire unrest in the U.S. and undermine its military objectives in Europe ran directly counter to the national interest, so it could not be permitted.

Dissent

  • Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (Author)
  • Louis Dembitz Brandeis

The rights protected by the First Amendment lie at the foundation of freedom, which requires the permission to dissent from the government's viewpoints and objectives. Protections on speech should not be curtailed unless there is a present danger of immediate evil, or the defendant intends to create such a danger. The evidence in this case consisted of two leaflets, which do not meet this standard.

Case Commentary

This case was evaluated under the clear and present danger test, which distinguishes between speech that has only a remote risk of causing harm and speech that has a strong risk of immediate harm. Only the latter type of speech can be curtailed under this rule, which places importance on the time element.

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