Dennis v. United States

Decision Date04 June 1951
Docket NumberNo. 336,336
Citation95 L.Ed. 1137,341 U.S. 494,71 S.Ct. 857
PartiesDENNIS et al. v. UNITED STATES
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Harry Sacher, New York City, George W. Crockett, Jr., Washington, D.C., Abraham J. Isserman, Los Angeles, Cal., for petitioners.

Messrs. Philip B. Perlman, Sol. Gen., Irving S. Shapiro, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Chief Justice VINSON announced the judgment of the Court and an opinion in which Mr. Justice REED, Mr. Justice BURTON and Mr. Justice MINTON join.

Petitioners were indicted in July, 1948, for violation of the conspiracy provisions of the Smith Act, 54 Stat. 671, 18 U.S.C. (1946 ed.) § 11, during the period of April, 1945, to July, 1948. The pretrial motion to quash the indictment on the grounds, inter alia, that the statute was unconstitutional was denied, United States v. Foster, D.C., 80 F.Supp. 479, and the case was set for trial on January 17, 1949. A verdict of guilty as to all the petitioners was returned by the jury on October 14, 1949. The Court of Appeals affirmed the convictions. 183 F.2d 201. We granted certiorari, 340 U.S. 863, 71 S.Ct. 91, limited to the following two questions: (1) Whether either § 2 or § 3 of the Smith Act, inherently or as construed and applied in the instant case, violates the First Amendment and other provisons of the Bill of Rights; (2) whether either § 2 or § 3 of the Act, inherently or as construed and applied in the instant case, violates the First and Fifth Amendments because of indefiniteness.

Sections 2 and 3 of the Smith Act, 54 Stat. 671, 18 U.S.C. (1946 ed.) §§ 10, 11 (see present 18 U.S.C. § 2385), provide as follows:

'Sec. 2.

'(a) It shall be unlawful for any person—

'(1) to knowingly or willfully advocate, abet, advise, or teach the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence, or by the assassination of any officer of any such government;

'(2) with intent to cause the overthrow or destruction of any government in the United States, to print, publish, edit, issue, circulate, sell, distribute, or publicly display any written or printed matter advocating, advising, or teaching the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence;

'(3) to organize or help to organize any society, group, or assembly of persons who teach, advocate, or encourage the overthrow or destruction of any government in the United States by force or violence; or to be or become a member of, or affiliate with, any such society, group, or assembly of persons, knowing the purposes thereof.

'(b) For the purposes of this section, the term 'government in the United States' means the Government of the United States, the government of any State, Territory, or possession of the United States, the government of the District of Columbia, or the government of any political subdivision of any of them.

'Sec. 3. It shall be unlawful for any person to attempt to commit, or to conspire to commit, any of the acts prohibited by the provisions of * * * this title.'

The indictment charged the petitioners with wilfully and knowingly conspiring (1) to organize as the Communist Party of the United States of America a society, group and assembly of persons who teach and advocate the overthrow and destruction of the Government of the United States by force and violence, and (2) knowingly and wilfully to advocate and teach the duty and necessity of overthrowing and destroying the Government of the United States by force and violence. The indictment further alleged that § 2 of the Smith Act proscribes these acts and that any conspiracy to take such action is a violation of § 3 of the Act.

The trial of the case extended over nine months, six of which were devoted to the taking of evidence, resulting in a record of 16,000 pages. Our limited grant of the writ of certiorari has removed from our consideration any question as to the sufficiency of the evidence to support the jury's determination that petitioners are guilty of the offense charged. Whether on this record petitioners did in fact advocate the overthrow of the Government by force and violence is not before us, and we must base any discussion of this point upon the conclusions stated in the opinion of the Court of Appeals, which treated the issue in great detail. That court held that the record in this case amply supports the necessary finding of the jury that petitioners, the leaders of the Communist Party in this country, were unwilling to work within our framework of democracy, but intended to initiate a violent revolution whenever the propitious occasion appeared. Petitioners dispute the meaning to be drawn from the evidence, contending that the Marxist- -Leninist doctrine they advocated taught that force and violence to achieve a Communist form of government in an existing democratic state would be necessary only because the ruling classes of that state would never permit the transformation to be accomplished peacefully, but would use force and violence to defeat any peaceful political and economic gain the Communists could achieve. But the Court of Appeals held that the record supports the following broad conclusions: By virtue of their control over the political apparatus of the Communist Political Association,1 petitioners were able to transform that organization into the Communist Party; that the policies of the Association were changed from peaceful cooperation with the United States and its economic and political structure to a policy which had existed before the United States and the Soviet Union were fighting a common enemy, namely, a policy which worked for the overthrow of the Government by force and violence; that the Communist Party is a highly disciplined organization, adept at infiltration into strategic positions, use of aliases, and double-meaning language; that the Party is rigidly controlled; that Communists, unlike other political parties, tolerate no dissension from the policy laid down by the guiding forces, but that the approved program is slavishly followed by the members of the Party; that the literature of the Party and the statements and activities of its leaders, petitioners here, advocate, and the general goal of the Party, was, during the period in question, to achieve a successful overthrow of the existing order by force and violence.

I.

It will be helpful in clarifying the issues to treat next the contention that the trial judge improperly interpreted the statute by charging that the statute required an unlawful intent before the jury could convict. More specifically, he charged that the jury could not find the petitioners guilty under the indictment unless they found that petitioners had the intent 'to overthrow * * * the Government of the United States by force and violence as speedily as circumstances would permit.'

Section 2(a)(1) makes it unlawful 'to knowingly or willfully advocate, * * * or teach the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States by force or violence * * *.'; Section 2(a)(3), 'to organize or help to organize any society, group, or assembly of persons who teach, advocate or encourage the overthrow * * *.' Because of the fact that § 2(a)(2) expressly requires a specific intent to overthrow the Government, and because of the absence of precise language in the foregoing subsections, it is claimed that Congress deliberately omitted any such requirement. We do not agree. It would require a far greater indication or congressional desire that intent not be made an element of the crime than the use of the disjunctive 'knowingly or willfully' in § 2(a)(1), or the omission of exact language in § 2(a)(3). The structure and purpose of the statute demand the inclusion of intent as an element of the crime. Congress was concerned with those who advocate and organize for the overthrow of the Government. Certainly those who recruit and combine for the purpose of advocating overthrow intend to bring about that overthrow. We hold that the statute requires as an essential element of the crime proof of the intent of those who are charged with its violation to overthrow the Government by force and violence. See Williams v. United States, 1951, 341 U.S. 97, 101—102, 71 S.Ct. 576, 579, 580; Screws v. United States, 1945, 325 U.S. 91, 101 105, 65 S.Ct. 1031, 1035, 1037, 8. L.Ed. 1495; Cramer v. United States, 1945, 325 U.S. 1, 31, 65 S.Ct. 918, 933, 89 L.Ed. 1441.

Nor does the fact that there must be an investigation of a state of mind under this interpretation afford any basis for rejection of that meaning. A survey of Title 18 of the U.S.Code indicates that the vast majority of the crimes designated by that Title require, by express language, proof of the existence of a certain mental state, in words such as 'knowingly,' 'maliciously,' 'wilfully,' 'with the purpose of,' 'with intent to,' or combinations or permutations of these and synonymous terms. The existence of a mens rea is the rule of, rather than the exception to, the principles of Anglo-American criminal jurisprudence. See American Communications Ass'n v. Douds, 1950, 339 U.S. 382, 411, 70 S.Ct. 674, 690, 94 L.Ed. 925.

It has been suggested that the presence of intent makes a difference in the law when an 'act otherwise excusable or carrying minor penalties' is accompanied by such an evil intent. Yet the existence of such an intent made the killing condemned in Screws, supra, and the beating in Williams, supra, both clearly and severely punishable under state law, offenses constitutionally punishable by the Federal Government. In those cases, the Court required the Government to prove that the defendants intended to deprive the victim of a constitutional right. If that precise mental state may be an essential element of a crime, surely an intent to overthrow the Government...

To continue reading

Request your trial
848 cases
  • NATIONAL ASS'N FOR ADVANCE. OF COLORED PEOPLE v. Patty
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of Virginia
    • 21 Enero 1958
    ...and present danger test laid down in Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47, 39 S.Ct. 247, 63 L.Ed. 470; and in Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, 71 S.Ct. 857, 95 L.Ed. 1137, the clear and present danger test was applied in upholding a conviction under the Smith Act, 18 U.S. C.A. ? 2385......
  • United States v. Schneiderman
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Southern District of California
    • 19 Agosto 1952
    ...as precedent the handling of analogous testimony in United States v. Dennis, 2 Cir., 1950, 183 F.2d 201, 230, affirmed, 1951, 341 U.S. 494, 71 S.Ct. 857, 95 L.Ed. 1137. There the defendants were charged with a violation of § 3 of the Smith Act, 54 Stat. 671 (1940) — conspiring to advocate t......
  • Younger v. Smith
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
    • 23 Enero 1973
    ...S.Ct. 274, 90 L.Ed. 274; and Fiske v. Kansas, 274 U.S. 380, 47 S.Ct. 655, 71 L.Ed. 1108), probably diluted in Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, 71 S.Ct. 857, 95 L.Ed. 1137, 33 paid lip service in Feiner v. New York, 340 U.S. 315, 71 S.Ct. 303, 95 L.Ed. 295, held inapplicable Neverthele......
  • First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. Los Angeles County
    • United States
    • California Supreme Court
    • 24 Abril 1957
    ...to be repressed. Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47, 52, 39 S.Ct. 247, 249, 63 L.Ed. 470. However, in Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, 71 S.Ct. 857, 868, 95 L.Ed. 1137, the Supreme Court, reviewing its earlier decisions in this field, reconsidered the test in the light of existing ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
63 books & journal articles
  • THOSE ARE FIGHTING WORDS, AREN'T THEY? ON ADDING INJURY TO INSULT.
    • United States
    • Case Western Reserve Law Review Vol. 71 No. 1, September 2020
    • 22 Septiembre 2020
    ...522 (1972))). (209.) Id. at 135 (Powell, J., concurring). (210.) Id. at 138 (Blackmun, J., dissenting). (211.) Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, 568 (1951) (Jackson, J., (212.) Courts sometimes must decide whether the use of epithets are sufficiently extreme or outrageous to qualify fo......
  • "THIS WEARISOME ANALYSIS": THE CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER TEST FROM SCHENCK TO BRANDENBURG.
    • United States
    • South Dakota Law Review Vol. 66 No. 3, March 2021
    • 22 Marzo 2021
    ...Schenck to Judge Hand's contribution to its shocking demise in Dennis. United States v. Dennis, 183 F.2d 201, 212 (2d Cir. 1950), aff d, 341 U.S. 494 (1951). Both Southern Methodist University and Notre Dame Law Review had symposium editions of their law reviews in honor of the 100-year ann......
  • Inverting the First Amendment.
    • United States
    • University of Pennsylvania Law Review Vol. 149 No. 4, April 2001
    • 1 Abril 2001
    ...supra note 3, at 107. Justice Douglas termed the defendants in Dennis "miserable merchants of unwanted ideas." Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, 589 (1951) (Douglas, J., dissenting). He focused on their unpopularity to suggest that they did not present a genuine threat to the nation. (......
  • Congressional investigations: politics and process.
    • United States
    • American Criminal Law Review Vol. 44 No. 3, June 2007
    • 22 Junio 2007
    ...be disclosed."). (149.) 360 U.S. 109 (1958). (150.) Id. at 126. (151.) Id. at 127. (152.) Id. at 127-28 (quoting Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, 509 (1951)). The Court noted that it previously had "upheld federal legislation aimed at the Communist problem which in a different context......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT