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Supreme Court Case Of Dennis V. United States, 1951

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For nearly five years, the United States and Great Britain allied with the Soviet Union to defeat the Axis Powers, during World War II. During the war, the usual tensions between the West and the Soviets took a back seat to their mutually convenient alliance. Tensions gradually resurfaced after Germany's defeat, and the Cold War was born. As the Soviets extended their influence by promoting and installing communist governments in the countries of Eastern Europe, a so-called iron curtain descended between Eastern and Western Europe. Fears of communist expansionism also began to grow in the United States. In 1949, China, a United States ally came under communist control. By 1950 the Soviets had acquired the atomic bomb and American soldiers were engaged in a war to defend South Korea from its communist neighbor to the north. As the nation faced communist threats from abroad, individuals who were perceived as potential subversives came under increasing scrutiny at home.

In 1940, just before World War II, Congress passed the Smith Act, which contained the first peacetime sedition laws since 1798. Among other things the Smith Act made it a federal crime to "advocate, abet, advise, or teach" the overthrow or destruction of any government in the United States by force or violence, or to become a member of a group devoted to such. Not only was performing any of these acts illegal, conspiring to do so was also a crime as well.

The Cold War was the most important issue of the presidential campaign of 1948. The Democratic Truman administration, feeling pressure from conservative Republicans to ferret out alleged subversive elements, brought to court 11 leaders of the Communist Party of the United States for violation of the Smith Act. They were not charged with any overt acts that contributed to violence or revolutionary activity, but rather with conspiring to teach and advocate such a activity in order to overthrow the government of the United States.

The arguments for Dennis were that the Smith Act violated the fundamental rights provided by the 1st Amendment and the Bill of Rights. It revoked the right to meet, print, and speak freely, regardless of the popularity of what is said. The defendants therefor took no direct, overt actions to overthrow the government and therefore presented no "clear and present danger" to the state. They were prosecuted for their thoughts and words, not for their actions. Also, the Smith Act provided no clear definition for "attempt to commit or conspire to commit, any of the acts" that were prohibited. "Conspiracy" makes illegal a thought or statement which is legal as long as no one else thinks or says the same thing. Conspiracy laws, therefore, do not serve freedom of thought witch is a fundamental right of U.S. citizens.

The United States could however argue that the Communist party advocates the violent overthrow of the government of the United States. Organizing the party was therefore a clear conspiracy to teach the violent overthrow of the government, which is proscribed by the Smith Act. Free speech is, at times, limited by a greater need of the society to protect itself, as the Court recognized when it established the clear and present danger standard. Teaching the violent overthrow of the United States Government certainly met the clear and present danger standard.

The Court voted 6Ð'-2 to uphold the convictions of the Communist party leaders under the Smith Act. Chief Justice Fred Vinson wrote the majority opinion supporting the Smith Act and its use in this case. "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," Vinson wrote. The Court believed that the actions of the leaders in organizing the Communist party presented a "clear and present danger" to the government, even if the success of the conspiracy was not likely. As Chief Justice Vinson stated: "It is the existence of the conspiracy which creates the danger. If the ingredients of the reaction are present, we cannot bind the Government to wait until the catalyst is added" before acting to protect society from the danger that will result. In effect, Vinson revised the clear and present danger standard, accepting the opinion of Judge Learned Hand that since a "clear and probable danger" existed, the government had a right to protect itself.

Justice Felix Frankfurter concurred with the majority in a separate opinion, in which he argued that all types of speech were not protected by the 1st Amendment: "Not every type of speech occupies the same position on the scale of values," he wrote. "Ð'...We have frequently indicated that the interest in protecting free speech depends on the circumstances of the occasion."

Justices Black and Douglas wrote dissenting opinions. Black pointed out that the defendants "were not charged with

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