The White Court (1910–21)

First Amendment

In what famous case were five Russians convicted of violating the Sedition Act?

The White Court ruled 7–2 in Abrams v. United States (1919) that several Russian immigrants could be convicted for violating the Sedition Act of 1918 for distributing pamphlets criticizing the American government and President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to send American troops into Russia. The anarchists distributed two pamphlets, entitled “Revolutionists Unite for Action” and “The Hypocrisy of the United States and Her Allies,” denounced the president, and urged “Workers of the World! Awake! Rise! Put down your enemy and mine!” They were sentenced to twenty years in prison by a federal trial judge.

The Court majority, in an opinion written by John Clarke, affirmed the anarchists’ convictions. He reasoned that “the manifest purpose” of the publications was to “create an attempt to defeat the war plans of the government of the United States.” Clarke wrote that “the plain purpose of their propaganda was to excite, at the supreme crisis of the war, disaffection, sedition, riots and, as they hoped, revolution.”

U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (above) created the “clear and present danger” test to determine whether or not certain words could be protected under the First Amendment. Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.

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