1948 November 1

Smith Act Trial Begins – First Amendment Test Lies Ahead


The famous Smith Act trial, one of the major events of the Cold War, began on this day. The case involved the prosecution of eleven leaders of the Communist Party for violating the Smith Act (enacted on June 29, 1940), which outlawed advocating the overthrow of the government. After a tumultuous trial, the defendants were convicted on October 10, 1949. On appeal, the Supreme Court upheld both the convictions and the constitutionality of the Smith Act in Dennis v. United States on June 4, 1951. Civil libertarians argue that the prosecution based its case only on the expression of ideas and did not present any evidence of the planning or commission of criminal actions.

The Dennis decision is regarded as one of the greatest blows to First Amendment freedoms in post-World War II America. The collateral damage of the case involved the conviction of the defense lawyers for contempt of court on March 10, 1952. The judge, Harold R. Medina, was clearly biased against the defendants, and the defense lawyers raised many objections. The lawyers were disbarred because of their contempt convictions, which crippled the left-wing bar during the peak of the Cold War.

The effect of the Dennis decision was greatly narrowed by the Yates v. United States decision on June 17, 1957, which established a higher requirement of actual or planned activity regarding the violent overthrow of the government, as opposed to mere advocacy. The Yates decision was one of several decisions on that day, which was labeled “Red Monday,” and which put constitutional limitations of several Cold War anti-communist measures.

Learn more about the trial: Michael Belknap, Cold War Political Justice (1977)

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

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

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