Dennis v. United States | Study Guide

United States Supreme Court

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Dennis v. United States | Quotes


One of the bases for the contention that the means which Congress has employed are invalid takes the form of an attack on the face of the statute on the grounds that, by its terms, it prohibits academic discussion of the merits of Marxism-Leninism .... The very language of the Smith Act negates the interpretation which petitioners would have us impose on that Act. It is directed at advocacy, not discussion.

Chief Justice Vinson

In this majority opinion the Court is asserting that one of the basic aspects of the petitioners' case—that the Smith Act is so broad as to bar even the discussion of seemingly subversive texts and ideas—is incorrect. The Court clarifies that their reading is based on Smith's barring of advocacy rather than simply talking about it. This is an important distinction, but one that would seem to discredit the case against the petitioners because they were found only to have used texts related to communism rather than advocating for violent revolution as it was alleged that they wanted.


The obvious purpose of the statute is to protect existing Government not from change by peaceable, lawful and constitutional means, but from change by violence, revolution, and terrorism. That it is within the power of the Congress to protect the Government of the United States from armed rebellion is a proposition which requires little discussion.

Chief Justice Vinson

This passage clarifies the role of the Smith Act as being aimed at defending the state against violent overthrow rather than from democratic forms of change. Here the Court also asserts that the need for and legality of Congress' role in protecting the government is beyond question. By doing so, the Court is aligning communism and the specifics of the Dennis case with "violence, revolution, and terrorism," and framing it as being at odds with "peaceable, lawful, and constitutional" change.


Certainly an attempt to overthrow the Government by force, even though doomed from the outset because of inadequate numbers or power of the revolutionists, is a sufficient evil for Congress to prevent.

Chief Justice Vinson

Here the Court is arguing that even though a threat might be unlikely to be carried out, Congress is still within its rights to act as if the threat is real. This is a notable assertion; the Court is claiming that the idea of overthrowing the government is grounds enough to require redress, even if the person or persons accused of wanting to do so have no power to make it happen.


In each case [courts] must ask whether the gravity of the "evil," discounted by its improbability, justifies such invasion of free speech as necessary to avoid the danger.

Chief Justice Vinson

As with the previous passage, here the Court is affirming the idea that the "evil" nature of wanting to overthrow the government is enough to warrant intervention: specifically, limitations on free speech. Regardless of whether a threat might materialize, the Court is arguing that those who advocate for action that could be a threat to the United States pose a distinct threat simply by speaking about said action, and therefore Congress is entitled to restrict their speech.


If Government is aware that a group aiming at its overthrow is attempting to indoctrinate its members and to commit them to a course whereby they will strike when the leaders feel the circumstances permit, action by the Government is required.

Chief Justice Vinson

Here, the Court is going one step further than in previous passages by asserting that the government is required to take action against a group if it subscribes to an ideology that could eventually lead them to taking action against the government. This holds true, regardless of what has transpired beyond the group's ideological leanings. This is a form of prior censorship, or censoring someone for something they might do rather than based on what they have already done.


This prosecution is the latest of never-ending, because never successful, quests for some legal formula that will secure an existing order against revolutionary radicalism.

Justice Jackson

Justice Jackson, in agreement with the majority opinion, here places the Dennis case within a long line of cases dealing with radical ideologies. He contends that protecting the "existing order" of the U.S. government has been an ongoing struggle in the face of revolutionary ideologies, such as anarchism, but that communism poses unique threats to the country given the history of adherents engaging in violence and subterfuge. By arguing that anarchism had been dealt with through restrictions, Jackson makes the case that communism must also be dealt with expediently because it poses a more significant risk to the status quo.


If the Smith Act is justified at all, it is justified precisely because it may serve to prohibit the type of conspiracy for which these defendants were convicted.

Justice Frankfurter

Here Justice Frankfurter ties the legitimacy of the Smith Act to the case before them. Rather than questioning whether the conspiracy identified in the Dennis case is grounds for indictment under the Smith Act, Frankfurter is arguing that the Smith Act is "justified" because of the "type of conspiracy" in the Dennis case. This speaks to the broad nature of the Smith Act and to the Court's interpretation of it in this case.


These petitioners were not charged with an attempt to overthrow the Government. They were not charged with overt acts of any kind designed to overthrow the Government. They were not even charged with saying anything or writing anything designed to overthrow the Government. The charge was that they agreed to assemble and to talk and publish certain ideas at a later date.

Justice Black

Justice Black's dissent gets at the reason the case became a source of controversy and why the precedents it set were eventually overturned. There was no evidence presented that showed that the petitioners had engaged in a conspiracy to overthrow the government, which is what they were charged with under the Smith Act. They were effectively being prosecuted for potentially violating the Smith Act by publishing or talking about taking action against the government at a later date, which Black points out is not the same thing as having done so.


So long as this Court exercises the power of judicial review of legislation, I cannot agree that the 1st Amendment permits us to sustain laws suppressing freedom of speech and press on the basis of Congress' or our own notions of mere "reasonableness."

Justice Black

Here Justice Black argues against the framing of free speech in the majority opinion, namely that he sees the Court ruling based on their own thoughts about the speech in question rather than the constitutionality of that speech. He is arguing that freedoms guaranteed by the 1st Amendment cannot be limited based on ideas of "reasonableness," a concept that is unfixed and changes over time.


There is hope, however, that in calmer times, when present pressures, passions, and fears subside, this or some later Court will restore the 1st Amendment liberties to the high preferred place where they belong in a free society.

Justice Black

In this passage Justice Black ends his dissenting opinion by linking the case's outcome with the times in which it was ruled. He sees the "pressures, passion, and fears" of the early Cold War as having a bearing on the ruling and suggests that those tensions are at odds with the 1st Amendment and pose a threat to "a free society."


The Amendment as so construed is not likely to protect any but those 'safe' or orthodox views which rarely need its protection.

Justice Black

Here Justice Black argues that the 1st Amendment, and particularly the free speech clause, has been interpreted in a way in this case that would benefit only those who adhere to mainstream views rather than protecting those who are outside of the mainstream. This is an important point and one that calls into question the very meaning of the 1st Amendment. Is it intended to protect those who deviate from the norm in thoughts, speech, and assembly or to enable a majority to enforce the status quo?


No matter how it is worded, this is a virulent form of prior censorship of speech and press, which I believe the 1st Amendment forbids.

Justice Black

In his dissent Justice Black makes clear that he disagrees fundamentally with the interpretation of the 1st Amendment handed down by the Court. He feels the latitude the ruling gives for the limiting of free speech amounts to prior censorship, which is censoring someone for what they might do rather than what they have done.


Treason was defined to require overt acts—the evolution of a plot against the country into an actual project. The present case is not one of treason.

Justice Douglas

Justice Douglas argues that what the petitioners have engaged in does not amount to treason because there was never an actual "project" to overthrow the government. In this interpretation, treason requires not just thoughts or talk about taking action, but a plan to do so, which he feels has not been shown to have occurred.


The vice of treating speech as the equivalent of overt acts of a treasonable or seditious character is emphasized by a concurring opinion, which, by invoking the law of conspiracy, makes speech do service for deeds which are dangerous to society.

Justice Douglas

Here Douglas is citing Justice Frankfurter's concurring opinion, in which he equates speech with conspiracy to act. Douglas is arguing that treating speech the same as actions is dangerous because in this case it has been "used to turn speech into seditious conduct." He sees this as a furthering of the definition of conspiracy that violates the constitutional freedom of speech.


Free speech is the rule, not the exception. The restraint to be constitutional must be based on more than fear, on more than passionate opposition against the speech, on more than a revolted dislike for its contents.

Justice Douglas

Much like Justice Black, Justice Douglas equates the majority ruling with the pressures of the times, in which fear of communism and subversion were dominant in both the public and private spheres. He also points out that constitutionality should be determined not by that fear or any personal opinions about a given form of rhetoric, but on the principle of free speech as he sees it: an inherent right that cannot be restricted without proper grounds.

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