Whitney v. California Case Brief

Why is the case important?

The California Criminal Syndicalism Act (the Act) prohibited any person to knowingly become a member of any organization that advocates “Criminal Syndicalism.” The Defendant, Anita Whitney (Defendant), was affiliated with an organization that adopted a “Left Wing Manifesto” and therefore convicted under the act.

Facts of the case

Charlotte Anita Whitney, a founding member of the Communist Labor Party of California, was prosecuted under California’s Criminal Syndicalism Act for helping to organize a group that sought to effect economic and political change through the unlawful use of violence. Whitney argued that she had not intended the organization to act this way and did not plan to aid it in those objectives. She claimed the California law violated the First Amendment.

Question

Did the Defendant’s knowingly being or becoming a member of an organization that advocated criminal syndicalism involve sufficient danger to the public peace that the State could constitutionally penalize her for it?

Answer

“Yes. The lower court is affirmed.
Justice Edward Sanford (J. Sanford) Because united and joint action involves even greater danger to the public peace and security than does single utterances and acts of individuals, it is not an unreasonable or arbitrary exercise of the police power of the State to prohibit the type of activity prohibited by the Act.
Concurrence. Justice Louis Brandeis (J. Brandeis) Although the right to free speech is fundamental, it is not absolute. The right is subject to such restrictions as are required to protect the public from clear and imminent dangers. The Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) has not yet fixed a standard by which to determine when such a degree of danger exists, but it has articulated the following guidelines: (1) fear of serious injury alone cannot justify suppression of free speech and assembly

  • (2) Even imminent danger cannot justify prohibitions on speech, unless the dangers apprehended are relatively serious.

    Conclusion

    No.

    • Case Brief: 1927
    • Petitioner: Whitney
    • Respondent: California
    • Decided by: Taft Court

    Citation: 274 US 357 (1927)
    Argued: Mar 18, 1926
    Decided: May 16, 1927