Gitlow v. New York
The limits of government control of free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment was the precedent set by the 1925 U.S. Supreme Court case Gitlow v. New York. It was the first Supreme Court case tried by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the first time the Court was asked to find a state law unconstitutional.
Although the plaintiff in this case was not successful, the decision rendered was historic in that it began a reversal in Supreme Court policy that said the Bill of Rights pertained to states as well as the federal government. Previously the Court held that the Bill of Rights was applicable only to the federal government and allowed states to pass laws that restricted liberties granted by the Bill of Rights.
In the early years of the 1900s Communism was a political boogeyman and there were uprisings among fringe political groups and labor agitators. Many laws were passed to limit activity that might spread unrest and violent demonstrations, including the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Treason Act of 1918. In 1919 Benjamin Gitlow, a socialist, published an article, “The Left Wing Manifesto,” in an alternative newspaper and was charged under New York’s Criminal Anarchy Law. He was found guilty and sentenced to 15 to 20 years in prison.
Gitlow’s appeal asked the Supreme Court to find unconstitutional a state law, a possibility which had not previously been considered.
The precedent was Barron v. Baltimore, a case which the plaintiff sought relief from the city of Baltimore for allowing sediment to fill in around a wharf he owned, depriving him of business. The Court decided in favor of the city, saying that the protection against government taking property without just compensation only applied to the federal government, not city or state governments.
Another case referenced was Schenck v. United States, a case in which people were convicted for distributing leaflets that encouraged others to evade the military draft. From this case the Court developed the test of “clear and present danger” to determine whether the defendants actions were an incitement to violence.