1902 April 3

New York Criminal Anarchy Law Signed


New York State on this day enacted a Criminal Anarchy law, making it a crime to advocate the violent overthrow of the government. The law was arguably the first such law in the twentieth century to criminalize political advocacy, establishing the model for similar state laws. By the early 1920s, 30 states had some variation of a criminal syndicalism or criminal anarchy act. California enacted its Criminal Syndicalism law, the most heavily used of all such laws, in 1919. The federal enacted the Smith Act on June 29, 1940. Coincidentally, New Jersey also passed an anti-anarchy law on this day.

The New York Criminal Anarchy law is particularly important because it was the basis for the conviction of Benjamin Gitlow, then a Socialist but soon a leading American Communist, in 1919. Gitlow’s appeal to the Supreme Court, in Gitlow v. New York (June 8, 1925), was the occasion for the Court to incorporate First Amendment protection of freedom of speech into the Fourteenth Amendment, making it applicable to the states. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law and Gitlow’s conviction, but the incorporation doctrine became the basis for the civil liberties and civil rights advances in constitutional law in the decades ahead. The New York Criminal Anarchy law was repealed on July 20, 1965.

The New York Criminal Anarchy law (in part): “Sec. 160. Criminal Anarchy Defined. Criminal anarchy is the doctrine that organized government should be overthrown by force or violence, or by assassination of the executive head or of any of the executive officials of government, or by any unlawful means. The advocacy of such doctrine either by word of mouth or writing is a felony.”

Learn more: Marc Lendler, Gitlow v. New York: Every Idea an Incitement (2012)

Learn more about anarchism: Paul Avrich, Anarchist Portraits (1988)

Learn more about the history of criminal anarchy, criminal syndicalism, sedition, and similar laws: Geoffrey Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (2004)

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