1949 October 14

Communist Party Leaders Found Guilty in Major Smith Act Trial


Eleven top leaders of the American Communist Party were convicted on this day of violating the Smith Act, which made it a crime to advocate the overthrow the government. The guilty verdict was appealed, and the result was the important Supreme Court decision, in Dennis v. United States, on June 4, 1951, which upheld the constitutionality of the Smith Act. In their dissents in Dennis, Justice Hugo Black and William O. Douglas argued that the government had presented no evidence of any criminal acts and relied entirely on the words of the defendants.

Following the trial, all of the defendants’ lawyers were cited for contempt (March 10, 1952). Their convictions and subsequent disbarment had a devastating impact on the left-wing bar during the Cold War.

Six years after the Dennis decision, the Supreme Court narrowed the permissible application of the Smith Act, in Yates v. United States, on June 17, 1957. Yates drew a sharper distinction between advocacy of the overthrow of the government as an idea, which was protected by the First Amendment, and actions directed toward that end.

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

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

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

Learn more about the Cold War: Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (1998)

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