Dennis v. United States Case Brief

Why is the case important?

The Petitioners, Dennis and others (Petitioners) were convicted for (1) willfully and knowingly conspiring to organize as the Communist Party of the United States, a group whose members advocated the overthrow of the United States government by force and (2) willfully and knowingly advocating and teaching the duty to do the same. The constitutionality of the statute under which the Petitioners were convicted was challenged.

Facts of the case

In 1948, eleven Communist Party leaders were convicted of advocating the violent overthrow of the US government and for the violation of several points of the Smith Act. The Act made it unlawful to knowingly conspire to teach and advocate the overthrow or destruction of the United States government. The party members who had been petitioning for socialist reforms claimed that the Act violated their First Amendment rights. Party leaders were found guilty and lower courts upheld the conviction.


Was the statute invalid by its own terms because it prohibited academic discussions on topics such as that of the merits of Marxism-Leninism?


“No. The Court of Appeals is affirmed.
Chief Justice Fred Vinson (J. Vinson) We must apply the clear and present danger test. Accordingly, we note that the overthrow of the Government by force is certainly a substantial enough interest for the Government to limit speech. Obviously, clear and present danger does not mean the government may not act until the Putsch has been plotted and on is the verge of being executed.
On the facts, the court was convinced that the requisite danger to act existed here: (1) the formation by the Petitioners of a highly organized conspiracy with rigidly disciplined members subject to call when the leaders (the Petitioners) felt it was time for action

  • (2) the inflammable nature of world conditions
  • (3) similar uprisings in other countries
  • and (4) the touch and go nature of our relations with other countries with whom the Petitioners were ideologically aligned. Thus, the convictions of the Petitioners were justified.”


    Upon review, the Court affirmed the conviction, holding that §§ 2 and 3 of the Smith Act, 18 U.S.C.S. §§ 10 and 11 , as applied to defendants did not violate their First Amendment rights because their conduct presented a clear and present danger of attempting to accomplish a crime that was within Congress’ power to punish. The structure and purpose of the statute demand the inclusion of intent as an element of the crime. Congress was concerned with those who advocate and organize for the overthrow of the Government. Certainly those who recruit and combine for the purpose of advocating overthrow intend to bring about that overthrow.

    • Case Brief: 1951
    • Petitioner: Eugene Dennis, John B. Williamson, Jacob Stachel, et al.
    • Respondent: United States
    • Decided by: Vinson Court

    Citation: 341 US 494 (1951)
    Argued: Dec 4, 1950
    Decided: Jun 4, 1951