- In the wake of the Watergate affair, Congress attempted to ferret out corruption in political campaigns by restricting financial contributions to candidates. Among other things, the law set limits on the amount of money an individual could contribute to a single campaign and it required reporting of contributions above a certain threshold amount. The Federal Election Commission was created to enforce the statute. Did the limits placed on electoral expenditures by the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, and related provisions of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954, violate the First Amendment's freedom of speech and association clauses? In this complicated case, the Court arrived at two important conclusions. First, it held that restrictions on individual contributions to political campaigns and candidates did not violate the First Amendment since the limitations of the FECA enhance the "integrity of our system of representative democracy" by guarding against unscrupulous practices. Second, the Court found that governmental restriction of independent expenditures in campaigns, the limitation on expenditures by candidates from their own personal or family resources, and the limitation on total campaign expenditures did violate the First Amendment. Since these practices do not necessarily enhance the potential for corruption that individual contributions to candidates do, the Court found that restricting them did not serve a government interest great enough to warrant a curtailment on free speech and association.
Miller v. California, 1973
Buckley v. Valeo, 1976
United States v. Nixon, 1974
- The West Virginia Board of Education required that the flag salute be part of the program of activities in all public schools. All teachers and pupils were required to honor the Flag; refusal to salute was treated as "insubordination" and was punishable by expulsion and charges of delinquency. Did the compulsory flag-salute for public schoolchildren violate the First Amendment? In a 6-to-3 decision, the Court overruled its decision in Minersville School District v. Gobitis and held that compelling public schoolchildren to salute the flag was unconstitutional. The Court found that such a salute was a form of utterance and was a means of communicating ideas. "Compulsory unification of opinion," the Court held, was doomed to failure and was antithetical to First Amendment values. Writing for the majority, Justice Jackson argued that "[i]f there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein."
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 1943
Minersville School District v. Gobitis, 1942
Jones v. Flowers, 1945
- Several litigants challenged the constitutionality of two provisions in the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Intended to protect minors from unsuitable internet material, the Act criminalized the intentional transmission of "obscene or indecent" messages as well as the transmission of information which depicts or describes "sexual or excretory activities or organs" in a manner deemed "offensive" by community standards. After being enjoined by a District Court from enforcing the above provisions, except for the one concerning obscenity and its inherent protection against child pornography, Attorney General Janet Reno appealed directly to the Supreme Court as provided for by the Act's special review provisions. Did certain provisions of the 1996 Communications Decency Act violate the First and Fifth Amendments by being overly broad and vague in their definitions of the types of internet communications which they criminalized? Yes. The Court held that the Act violated the First Amendment because its regulations amounted to a content-based blanket restriction of free speech. The Act failed to clearly define "indecent" communications, limit its restrictions to particular times or individuals (by showing that it would not impact on adults), provide supportive statements from an authority on the unique nature of internet communications, or conclusively demonstrate that the transmission of "offensive" material is devoid of any social value. The Court added that since the First Amendment distinguishes between "indecent" and "obscene" sexual expressions, protecting only the former, the Act could be saved from facial overbreadth challenges if it dropped the words "or indecent" from its text. The Court refused to address any Fifth Amendment issues.
Reno v. ACLU, 1997
Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. FEC, 1996
United States v. Reno, 1998
- John Tinker, 15 years old, his sister Mary Beth Tinker, 13 years old, and Christopher Echardt, 16 years old, decided along with their parents to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to their Des Moines schools during the christmas holiday season. Upon learning of their intentions, and fearing that the armbands would provoke disturbances, the principals of Des Moins' school districts resolved that all students wearing armbands be asked to remove them or face suspension. When the Tinker siblings and Christopher wore their armbands to school, they were asked to remove them. When they refused, they were suspended until after New Year's Day. Does a prohibition against the wearing of armbands in public school, as a form of symbolic protest, violate the First Amendment's freedom of speech protections? The wearing of armbands was "closely akin to 'pure speech'" and protected by the First Amendment. School environments imply limitations on free expression, but here the principals lacked justification for imposing any such limits.The principals had failed to show that the forbidden conduct would substantially interfere with appropriate school discipline.
Iowa Public School Superintendent v. Tinker, 1967
Tinker v. Tailor, 1965
Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 1969
- During World War I, Schenck mailed circulars to draftees. The circulars suggested that the draft was a monstrous wrong motivated by the capitalist system. The circulars urged "Do not submit to intimidation" but advised only peaceful action such as petitioning to repeal the Conscription Act. Schenck was charged with conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act by attempting to cause insubordination in the military and to obstruct recruitment. Were Schenck's actions (words, expression) protected by the free speech clause of the First Amendment? Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, speaking for a unanimous Court, concluded that Schenck was not protected in this situation. The character of every act depends on the circumstances. "The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent." During wartime, utterances tolerable in peacetime can be punished.
Schenck v United States, 1919
United States v. Schenck, 1916
Socialist Party USA v. United States, 1918
- A leader in the Ku Klux Klan made a speech at a Klan rally and was later convicted under an Ohio criminal syndicalism law. The law made illegal advocating "crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform," as well as assembling "with any society, group, or assemblage of persons formed to teach or advocate the doctrines of criminal syndicalism." Did Ohio's criminal syndicalism law, prohibiting public speech that advocates various illegal activities, violate the speaker's right to free speech as protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments? The Court's Per Curiam opinion (a legal term, meaning literally "by the court", that denotes decisions made by a court acting as a whole, as opposed to statements made by individual judges) held that the Ohio law violated his right to free speech. The Court used a two-pronged test to evaluate speech acts: (1) speech can be prohibited if it is "directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action" and (2) it is "likely to incite or produce such action." The criminal syndicalism act made illegal the advocacy and teaching of doctrines while ignoring whether or not that advocacy and teaching would actually incite imminent lawless action. The failure to make this distinction rendered the law overly broad and in violation of the Constitution.
Schenck v. United States, 1919
Brandenburg v. Ohio, 1969
Miller v. California, 1973
- Before the Colorado Republican Party selected its 1986 senatorial candidate, its Federal Campaign Committee bought radio advertisements attacking the Democratic Party's likely candidate. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) brought suit charging that the Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee had violated the "Party Expenditure Provision" of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA), which imposes dollar limits upon political party "expenditure[s] in connection with the general election campaign of a [congressional] candidate." The Colorado Party defended itself by claiming that the FECA expenditure limitations violated the First Amendment as applied to its advertisements, and filed a counterclaim seeking to raise a challenge to the Provision as a whole. The District Court held that the Provision did not cover the expenditure at issue. Therefore, the court entered summary judgment for the Colorado Party and it dismissed the counterclaim as moot. The Court of Appeals ruled that the Provision covered this expenditure and satisfied the Constitution. Subsequently, the court ordered judgment for the FEC. Do the federal campaign-financing limits on the amount of money political parties may spend on congressional races, as established by the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, violate First Amendment rights when applied to expenditures a political party has made independently of any candidate's campaign? Yes. In a plurality decision, Justice Stephen G. Breyer announced the judgment of the Court and authored an opinion, in which the Court ruled that the First Amendment prohibits the application of the Party Expenditure Provision of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (FECA) to the kind of expenditure at issue here-an expenditure that the political party has made independently, without coordination with any candidate. Justices O'Connor and Souter joined Justice Breyer. Justice Kennedy, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Scalia, concluded that, on its face, FECA violates the First Amendment when it restricts as a "contribution" a political party's spending "in cooperation, consultation, or concert, with_a candidate." Justice Thomas concluded that the Provision is unconstitutional not only as applied to the Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee, but also on its face. Dissenting, Justices Stevens and Ginsburg agreed with the judgment of the Court of Appeals.
Colorado v. Ramirez, 1985
Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee v. FEC, 1996
Buckley v. Valeo, 1976
- In 1984, in front of the Dallas City Hall, Gregory Lee Johnson burned an American flag as a means of protest against Reagan administration policies. Johnson was tried and convicted under a Texas law outlawing flag desecration. He was sentenced to one year in jail and assessed a $2,000 fine. After the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed the conviction, the case went to the Supreme Court. Is the desecration of an American flag, by burning or otherwise, a form of speech that is protected under the First Amendment? In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court held that Johnson's burning of a flag was protected expression under the First Amendment. The Court found that Johnson's actions fell into the category of expressive conduct and had a distinctively political nature. The fact that an audience takes offense to certain ideas or expression, the Court found, does not justify prohibitions of speech. The Court also held that state officials did not have the authority to designate symbols to be used to communicate only limited sets of messages, noting that "[i]f there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."
Texas v. Johnson, 1989
ACLU v. Texas, 1992
City of Dallas v. Johnson, 1988
- Gitlow, a socialist, was arrested for distributing copies of a "left-wing manifesto" that called for the establishment of socialism through strikes and class action of any form. Gitlow was convicted under a state criminal anarchy law, which punished advocating the overthrow of the government by force. At his trial, Gitlow argued that since there was no resulting action flowing from the manifesto's publication, the statute penalized utterences without propensity to incitement of concrete action. The New York courts had decided that anyone who advocated the doctrine of violent revolution violated the law. Does the New York law punishing the advocacy of overthrowing the government an unconstitutional violation of the free speech clause of the First Amendment? Threshold issue: Does the First Amendment apply to the states? Yes, by virtue of the liberty protected by due process that no state shall deny (14th Amendment). On the merits, a state may forbid both speech and publication if they have a tendency to result in action dangerous to public security, even though such utterances create no clear and present danger. The rationale of the majority has sometimes been called the "dangerous tendency" test. The legislature may decide that an entire class of speech is so dangerous that it should be prohibited. Those legislative decisions will be upheld if not unreasonable, and the defendant will be punished even if her speech created no danger at all.
New York v. Gitlow, 1922
Forrest v. Gump, 1998
Gitlow v New York, 1925
- Miller, after conducting a mass mailing campaign to advertise the sale of "adult" material, was convicted of violating a California statute prohibiting the distribution of obscene material. Some unwilling recipients of Miller's brochures complained to the police, initiating the legal proceedings. Is the sale and distribution of obscene materials by mail protected under the First Amendment's freedom of speech guarantee? In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court held that obscene materials did not enjoy First Amendment protection. The Court modified the test for obscenity established in Roth v. United States and Memoirs v. Massachusetts, holding that "[t]he basic guidelines for the trier of fact must be: (a) whether 'the average person, applying contemporary community standards' would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest. . . (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." The Court rejected the "utterly without redeeming social value" test of the Memoirs decision.
Miller v. United States Postal Service, 1978
Miller v. California, 1973
United States v. Miller, 1982