1948 July 20

Communist Party Leaders Arrested; Test of Smith Act Ahead


The top leaders of the Communist Party were arrested under the Smith Act on this day. The Smith Act, enacted on June 29, 1940, made it a crime to advocate the violent  overthrow of the government. After a stormy trial, in which the prosecutor relied primarily on Marxist writings and offered no evidence of any planned effort to overthrow the U.S. government, 11 party leaders were convicted. The appeal of their convictions resulted in the Supreme Court decision, Dennis v. United States on June 4, 1951, in which the Court upheld the convictions as well as the constitutionality of the Smith Act. Civil libertarians regarded the Dennis decision as a serious blow to First Amendment rights.

Read: Michael R. Belknap, Cold War Political Justice: The Smith Act, the Communist Party, and American Civil Liberties (1977)

Watch newsreel footage of the Smith Act trial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CsldbspbtA

Learn more: Geoffrey Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (2004)

Learn more about the Smith Act and its history: http://constitution.findlaw.com/amendment1/annotation13.html

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