The Taft Court (1921–30)

First Amendment

Who was Benjamin Gitlow and how did the Court rule in his case?

Benjamin Gitlow was a member of the Left Wing Section of the Socialist Party and the business manager of the party’s newspaper, the Revolutionary Age. Gitlow believed that mass industrial revolts were necessary to overthrow the capitalistic government of the United States. New York officials charged Gitlow with violating a state criminal anarchy law that prohibited advocating the overthrow of the American government.

The Taft Court affirmed Gitlow’s conviction and determined the anarchy statute did not violate the First Amendment. The Court determined that such advocacy was not protected by the First Amendment, that the amendment “does not protect disturbances to the public peace or the attempt to subvert the government.” The Court reasoned that writings, such as those found in Gitlow’s Revolutionary Age and Left Wing Manifesto, are by their very nature a “danger to the public peace and to the security of the State.” Justice Edward Sanford wrote for the majority: “The State cannot reasonably be required to measure the danger from every such utterance in the nice balance of a jeweler’s scale. A single revolutionary spark may kindle a fire that, smoldering for a time, may burst into a sweeping and destructive conflagration.”


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