Landmark Supreme Court Case: Dennis v. U.S. (1951)
Dennis v. U.S. (1951) is the 95th landmark Supreme Court case, eighth in the Speech, Press, and Protest module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Dennis v. U.S. (1951)
In 1948, eleven Communist Party leaders were convicted of advocating the violent overthrow of the US government and for the violation of several points of the Smith Act. The Act made it unlawful to knowingly conspire to teach and advocate the overthrow or destruction of the United States government. The party members who had been petitioning for socialist reforms claimed that the Act violated their First Amendment rights. Party leaders were found guilty and lower courts upheld the conviction.
Q: Did the Smith Act violate the First Amendment?
A: No. The convictions based on the Smith Act did not violate the First Amendment despite the fact that the defendants advocated violent overthrow of the government.
6-2 holding the defendants’ convictions for conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government by force through their participation in the Communist Party were not in violation of the First Amendment. Dennis did not have the right under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution to exercise free speech, publication and assembly, if the exercise involved the creation of a plot to overthrow the government. Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
There was a distinction between the mere teaching of communist philosophies and active advocacy of those ideas. Such advocacy created a “clear and present danger” that threatened the government. Given the gravity of the consequences, the success or probability of success was not necessary to justify restrictions on the freedom of speech.
Justices Black and Douglas dissented in separate opinions. Justice Black stressed that the petitioners were not charged with an attempt to overthrow the Government or any overt acts 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. “No matter how it is worded, this is a virulent form of prior censorship of speech and press, which I believe the First Amendment forbids.”
In 1957, the Court in Yates v. United States restricted the holding in Dennis, ruling that the Smith Act did not prohibit advocacy of forcible overthrow of the government as an abstract doctrine. While Yates did not overrule Dennis, it rendered the broad conspiracy provisions of the Smith Act unenforceable. Finally, in 1969, Brandenburg v. Ohio held that “mere advocacy” of violence was per se protected speech. Brandenburg was a de facto overruling of Dennis, defining the bar for constitutionally unprotected speech to be incitement to “imminent lawless action”
Next Speech, Press, and Protest: Yates v. United States (1957)
Previous Speech, Press, and Protest Case: Chaplinsky v New Hampshire (1942)
Next Case: Youngstown Sheet and Tube v. Sawyer (1952)
Previous Case: Sweatt v. Painter (1950)