Debs v. United States Case Brief

Why is the case important?

The Petitioner, Debs (Petitioner), was found guilty for attempting to incite insubordination in the military by giving a speech. He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years on each count.

Facts of the case

Eugene Debs delivered a public speech that incited his audience to interfere with military recruitment during World War I. He was indicted for violating the Espionage Act of 1917 for allegedly attempting to cause insubordination and refusal of duty in the US military. He was also accused of attempted obstruction recruitment and enlistment. He appealed his conviction on First Amendment grounds.


Does the Petitioner have a protected right to express himself as he did?


“No. The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) sustains the charge of attempting to obstruct and obstructing the recruiting service of the Respondent, the United States (Respondent).

Discussion. The decision is based on the analysis of the likelihood or imminence of harm caused by the speech. Although there appears to be very little evidence of either here, the Supreme Court believed the danger was very real.”


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.

  • Case Brief: 1919
  • Petitioner: Eugene V. Debs
  • Respondent: United States
  • Decided by: White Court

Citation: 249 US 211 (1919)
Argued: Jan 27 – 28, 1919
Decided: Mar 10, 1919