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Important Court Cases

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Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919), was a United States Supreme Court decision concerning whether the defendant possessed a First Amendment right to free speech against the draft during World War I. The defendant, Charles Schenck, a Socialist, had circulated a flyer to recently drafted men. The flyer, which cited the Thirteenth Amendment's provision against "involuntary servitude," exhorted the men to "assert [their] opposition to the draft," which it described as a moral wrong driven by the capitalist system. The circulars proposed peaceful resistance, such as petitioning to repeal the Conscription Act.

Schenck was charged with conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act by attempting to cause insubordination in the military and to obstruct recruitment. The Court, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., held that Schenck's conviction was constitutional. The First Amendment did not protect speech encouraging insubordination, since, "[w]hen a nation is at war many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight." In other words, the court argued, the circumstances of wartime permit greater restrictions on free speech than would be allowable during peacetime.

In the opinion's most famous passage, Justice Holmes sets out the "clear and present danger" standard:

"The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent."

This case is also the source of the phrase "shouting fire in a crowded theater", a paraphrase of Holmes' view that "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire

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