1956 April 2

Pennsylvania Sedition Law Unconstitutional Under Federal Preemption Doctrine


In the case of Pennsylvania v. Nelson, decided on this day, the Supreme Court held that a Pennsylvania sedition law was unconstitutional because the offense in question was preempted by an existing federal law. The doctrine of preemption holds that when there are federal and state laws on the same subject, the federal law preempts the state law. Sedition is defined as advocating the overthrow of the government. Steve Nelson was an acknowledged leader of the Communist Party in Pennsylvania. While the decision overturned his conviction and invalidated state sedition laws, it left in effect the federal Smith Act, passed on June 29, 1940, which made it a crime to advocate the violent overthrow of the government.

Read Nelson’s story: Steve Nelson, James Barrett, and Rob Ruck, Steve Nelson: American Radical (1981)

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

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

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