Welcome to the third part of the 15-part mini series where we examine College Board's list of the supposed 15 most important SCOTUS cases in US History!
Our SCOTUS case for this week is... Schenck V. United States!!!
Background: Charles Schenck and Elizabeth Baer, members of the socialist party, decided that it was unconstitutional to force people into the draft, according to the Thirteenth Amendment. The Thirteenth Amendment states that, "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the part shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States..." Schenck and Baer argued that forcing people into the draft was a form of involuntary servitude, so they created a leaflet and advertised that people peacefully protest and stand up against the draft. This act was a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917 which stated that all obstruction of military recruitment was illegal, so they were taken to court.
Basic Overview of the Case:
The District Court found them guilty and sentenced them to 6 months in jail, so Schenck appealed the case and it was then brought to the Supreme Court. The idea in contention in the Supreme Court was, was Schenck allowed to violate the Espionage Act of 1917 in this way according to his first amendment rights? The Supreme Court unanimously decided that the Espionage Act was in violation of the First Amendment and Congress did have the power, in this case to control the limits of freedom of speech, finding Schenck guilty. They concluded that speaking out against the draft was likely to put the entire process in jeopardy, which is not something they could allow.
How has this Case Impacted US History?: This case established that the First Amendment has limits that are not directly correlated to clear and present danger. It also stated that Congress does have the power to pass acts that constitutionally impede upon First Amendment rights. This decision has made it evident that freedom of speech has its' limits.
My Opinion: I am not sure whether or not I agree with the decision made in this case. On one hand, I can see how being outspoken about disobeying a government process could be a bad thing, but on the other hand, isn't the freedom of speech primarily exercised so that people can protest about government issues? I think that Baer and Schneck had a very valid argument that drafting citizens could be considered a form of involuntary servitude and that their First Amendment rights should've protected them when they were making their case to the public.
Does this Case Deserve to be on the List?: I think that this case is very important, but is it important enough to be in the top 15? This case established the clear and present danger test, but it is slightly outdated. I think the most valuable thing established in this case was that the federal government can conditionally limit individual freedoms, but I would say that there are other cases just like this one, like New York Times Co V. United States, that hold the same weight and ideas as Schenck V. United States.