United States v. Schoon, 971 F.2d 193 (9th Cir. 1991)

2012-09-20 15:43:14

From the earliest days of our country’s founding, civil disobedience has had a role in our political, social, and cultural debates. However, there continues to be debate over the proper role civil disobedience plays in our society.

In December 1989, thirty people gained admittance to the IRS office where they chanted ‘‘Keep America’s tax dollars out of El Salvador’’ and splashed simulated blood throughout the office. Three individuals were arrested. At their bench trial, these individuals argued that their acts in protest of American involvement in El Salvador were necessary to avoid further bloodshed in that country and, therefore, requested that the jury be instructed on a necessity defense that even though they broke a minor law, their actions were justified because they tried to prevent a more serious harm. The district court precluded the necessity defense and the individuals appealed.

The Ninth Circuit distinguished indirect civil disobedience— violating a law or interfering with a governmental policy that is not, itself, the object of protest, with direct civil disobedience—protesting the existence of a law by breaking that law or by preventing the execution of that law in a specific instance in which a particularized harm would otherwise follow it. The Court found that the necessity defense is per se inapplicable to cases involving indirect civil disobedience. The result of Schoon is that juries will never get the opportunity to determine whether indirect civil disobedience actions were just.


References and Further Reading

  • Bauer, Steven M., and Peter J. Eckerstrom, Note, The State Made Me Do It: The Applicability of the Necessity Defense to Civil Disobedience, Stanford Law Review 39 (1987): 1173–1200.
  • Cavallaro, James L., Jr., Note, The Demise of the Political Necessity Defense: Indirect Civil Disobedience and United States v. Schoon, California Law Review 81 (1993): 351–385.
  • Schulkind, Laura J., Applying the Necessity Defense to Civil Disobedience Cases, New York University Law Review 64 (1989): 79–112.