Landmark Supreme Court Case: Schenck v. U.S. (1919)
Schenck v. United States (1919) is the 43rd landmark Supreme Court case, the first case 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
- Science & Technology
- 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.
Schenck v. United States (1919)
Charles Schenck and Elizabeth Baer were members of the Executive Committee of the Socialist Party in Philadelphia, of which Schenck was General Secretary. The executive committee authorized, and Schenck oversaw, printing and mailing more than 15,000 fliers to men slated for conscription during World War I. The fliers advised only peaceful action urging men not to submit to the draft, saying “Do not submit to intimidation”, “Assert your rights”, “If you do not assert and support your rights, you are helping to deny or disparage rights which it is the solemn duty of all citizens and residents of the United States to retain,” and urged men not to comply with the draft on the grounds that military conscription constituted involuntary servitude, which is prohibited by the Thirteenth Amendment.
After jury trials Schenck and Baer were convicted of violating Section 3 of the Espionage Act of 1917 by attempting to cause insubordination in the military and to obstruct recruitment. Both defendants appealed to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that their conviction, and the statute which purported to authorize it, were contrary to the First Amendment. They relied heavily on the text of the First Amendment, and their claim that the Espionage Act of 1917 had what today one would call a “chilling effect” on free discussion of the war effort.
Schenck Legal Questions and Answers
Q: Did Schenck’s conviction under the Espionage Act for criticizing the draft violate his first Amendment right to free speech?
A: No. The Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment does not shield advocacy urging conduct deemed unlawful under the Espionage Act.
Unanimous decision ruling defendant’s criticism of the draft was not protected by the First Amendment, because it was intended to result in a crime and created a clear and present danger to the enlistment and recruiting service of the U.S. armed forces during a state of war. The Espionage Act was an appropriate exercise of Congress’ wartime authority for while it only applied to successful obstructions of the draft, common-law precedents allowed prosecution for attempts that were dangerously close to success. The widespread dissemination of the leaflets was sufficiently likely to disrupt the conscription process.
the circumstances of wartime allow greater restrictions on free speech than would be allowed during peacetime, if only because new and greater dangers are present.
The opinion’s most famous and most often quoted passage was this:
The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. … 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. It is a question of proximity and degree.
The phrase “shouting fire in a crowded theater” has since become a popular metaphor for dangers or limitations of free speech.
A unanimous Court in a brief per curiam opinion in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), abandoned the “clear and present danger” language while seemingly applying the reasoning of Schenck to reverse the conviction of a Ku Klux Klan member prosecuted for giving an inflammatory speech. The Court said that speech could be prosecuted only when it posed a danger of “imminent lawless action”.
Next Speech, Press and Protest Case: Abrams v. U.S. (1919)
Previous Case: Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918)