Debs v. United States

249 U.S. 211, 39 S. Ct. 252 (1919)



If the main theme of a speech is socialism, its growth, and a prophecy of its ultimate success, with that the United States Supreme Court has nothing to do, but if a part of the manifest intent of the more general utterances is to encourage those present to obstruct the recruiting service and if in passages such encouragement was directly given, the immunity of the general theme may not be enough to protect the speech.


Defendant was indicted under the Espionage Act after he gave a speech to a crowd in which he advocated socialism and expressed opposition to Prussian militarism in a way that naturally might have been thought to have been intended to include the mode of proceeding in the United States. Defendant was alleged to have incited refusal of duty in the military and obstruction of the recruiting and enlistment service by his speech. At trial, he told the jury that his speech did not warrant the charges but that he did abhor and oppose war. He was convicted. On appeal, the Court affirmed defendant's conviction.


Was the speech punishable under the Espionage Act?




The Court found that defendant's statement was not necessary to warrant the jury in finding that one purpose of the speech, whether incidental or not, was to oppose not only war in general but World War I, and that the opposition was so expressed that its natural and intended effect would be to obstruct recruiting. If that was intended and if, in all the circumstances, that would be its probable effect, the speech was not protected by reason of its having been part of a general program and expressions of a general and conscientious belief. In affirming, the Court concluded that when the delivery of the speech in such words and such circumstances that the probable effect was to prevent recruiting, it was punishable under the Espionage Act.

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