1941 December 8

Minneapolis Trotskyists Sentenced to Prison for Violating the Smith Act


The prosecution of Minneapolis Teamsters Union members, who were also Trotskyists (a dissident Marxist sect), was the first significant case involving the 1940 Smith Act, which made it a crime to advocate the violent overthrow of the government. (See June 29, 1940 for enactment of the law.) The defendants were found guilty at trial. On this day, the 23 defendants were sentenced. The Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, preventing a test of the constitutionality of the First Amendment aspects of the Smith Act.

The prosecution of the Minneapolis Teamsters was a shabby political operation, urged on by the Franklin Roosevelt administration with the help of the national Teamsters Union leadership, who wanted to be rid of a dissident faction, and the Communist Party, which wanted to be rid of a Marxist group. (During World War II, the Soviet Union was a key ally in the war against Nazi Germany, and the American Communist Party abandoned its radical Marxist views in favor of an aggressive pro-American, pro-war stance.)

The Smith Act finally reached the Supreme Court in Dennis v. United States on June 4, 1951, in which the Court upheld both the constitutionality of the law and the conviction of the  top leaders of the Communist Party. Because the government offered no real evidence of any acts related to the violent overthrow of the government, and relied largely on the words of the defendants, the Dennis decision is regarded by civil libertarians as a serious blow to the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court limited the scope of the Smith Act and the Dennis decision in Yates v. United States, on June 17, 1957, one of the famous “Red Monday” decisions that limited various anti-Communist measures. In Yates, the Court held that the actions of the defendants did not pose a “clear and present danger.” Yates essentially ended the government’s use of the Smith Act.

Learn more: Richard W. Steele, Free Speech in the Good War (1999)

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

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