Debs v. United States
249 U.S. 211 (1919)

  • During World War I, Debs (a Socialist!) made an anti-war speech. He was arrested and charged with violating the Sedition Act of 1918.
    • The Sedition Act was an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917, and basically made it a crime to (among other things), “utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” intended to cause contempt or scorn for the form of government of the US, hinder the war effort, or support the cause of countries at war with the US.
  • He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He appealed.
    • Debs argued that the Sedition Act was an unconstitutional infringement on his 1st Amendment right to free speech.
  • The US Supreme Court upheld the conviction.
    • The US Supreme Court looked to Schenck v. United States (249 U.S. 47 (1919)) and found there was a clear and present danger exception to freedom of speech.
      • The clear and present danger exception says that a law is constitutional if it can be shown that the language it prohibits poses a “clear and present danger.”
    • The Court found that Debs was attempting to arouse mutiny and treason by preventing the drafting of soldiers, and during wartime, those actions were a clear and present danger.
  • Oddly, Debs ran for President from prison and won 3.4% of the popular vote. He was released from prison a year later when the Sedition Act and the Espionage Act were repealed.