Yates v. United States, 354 U.S. 298 (1957)

2012-09-30 21:34:52

Yates v. United States involved questions regarding the First Amendment. The ruling in Yates provided a further interpretation of a statute cited in Dennis v. United States (1951), a ruling that applied the Smith Act.

Sections 2 and 3 of the Smith Act banned the willful advising, teaching, or advocacy of the overthrow of any government in the United States by force or violence, and conspiring to do so. In Dennis, the Supreme Court allowed this act to survive by different interpretations of the ‘‘clear and present danger’’ test, despite the objections in support of free speech and free assembly found in the First Amendment. The Department of Justice’s interpretation of this ruling in the 1950s was that the Communist Party was an organization dedicated to the overthrow of the U.S. government by force or violence. Therefore, the Department felt that the Party’s leaders and members could be constitutionally punished. Fourteen Communist Party leaders were convicted under the Smith Act in a jury trial in the district court for the Southern District of California. The defendants appealed to the Supreme Court in Yates v. United States.

The Court was faced with questions as to whether the convictions were a violation of the First Amendment. The previous interpretation in Dennis left the interpretation of the Smith Act as an abstract principle. In a six-to-one decision, the Supreme Court reversed the convictions in Yates and remanded the case back to the district court for a retrial. The Supreme Court cited the need to clearly cite examples of the advocacy of the overthrow of the U.S. government. Otherwise, speech and assembly were protected by the First Amendment. The Court clarified the Smith Act, distinguishing between the abstract principle of teaching the overthrow of government and the teachings of concrete action for the foreseeable overthrow of any government in the United States.


References and Further Reading

  • Kauper, Paul. Civil Liberties and the Constitution. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1962.
  • Pollack, Harriet, and Alexander Smith. Civil Liberties and Civil Rights in the United States. St. Paul, MN: West, 1978.
  • Spicer, George. The Supreme Court and Fundamental Freedoms. 2nd ed. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts Press, 1967.

Cases and Statutes Cited