1957 June 17

“Red Monday”: Supreme Court Limits Anti-Communist Measures


Known as “Red Monday,” this day marked a historic turning point for the Supreme Court. The Court issued four rulings, all of which struck down anti-Communist measures. Some commentators believe this marked the real beginning of the Warren Court Era, as it now appeared confident to take a more activist posture on civil liberties cases.

Yates v. United States overturned the conviction of “second tier” Communist Party leaders and severely weakened the Smith Act, under which the top leadership of the Communist Party had been convicted in 1949. The Supreme Court had upheld the constitutionality of the Smith Act in Dennis v. United States on June 4, 1951. Yates, however, greatly narrowed the interpretation of the Smith Act and drew a sharper distinction between advocacy, which is protected by the First Amendment, and action, which is not.

One adverse impact of the Yates decision, however, was that by limiting the use of the Smith Act against the Communist Party, it encouraged the FBI to make greater use of the secret and illegal COINTELPRO program [see March 8, 1956] against the Party.

Watkins v. United States overturned the conviction of a leftist labor leader for refusing the answer questions about his political beliefs and associations. The Court held that the power of Congress to investigate private matters was not unlimited, and the decision placed new limits on HUAC.

Sweezy v. New Hampshire held that an investigation by the New Hampshire Attorney General into the alleged subversive activities of Paul Sweezy denied him due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Finally, in Service v. Dulles, the Court held that John S. Service, an American diplomat, had been fired by the Secretary of State on grounds of disloyalty, in violation of the State Department’s own procedures. The overall impact of the four decisions was enormous, and in the view of many people they marked the beginning of the end of the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War.

Justice Harlan in Yates: “In failing to distinguish between advocacy of forcible overthrow as an abstract doctrine and advocacy of action to that end, the District Court appears to have been led astray by the holding in Dennis that advocacy of violent action to be taken at some future time was enough.”

Learn more about “Red Monday”: Arthur J. Sabin, In Calmer Times: The Supreme Court and Red Monday (1999)

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