Nahmod Law

Freedom of Speech (3): The Clear and Present Danger Years


Perhaps surprisingly, free speech jurisprudence in the Supreme Court began in earnest only in the second decade of the 20th century. The subject that caught the Court’s and the nation’s attention during that period was advocacy of illegal conduct and, more specifically, subversive advocacy. Did the First Amendment protect the speech of those advocating interference with the efforts of the United States during the First World War? Did it even protect the speech of those advocating the use of force to overthrown the government of the United States? In answering these questions, Justices Holmes and Brandeis, dissenting, made First Amendment history with their clear and present danger test for punishing speech: did the speech present a clear danger of imminent and serious illegal conduct?

The Problem

When I teach First Amendment, I frame the issue this way: if speech advocating illegal conduct to an audience is at one end of the spectrum, and the illegal conduct of the audience (which is clearly punishable) is at the other end, at what point can the government intervene to arrest the speaker?

The least speech-protective approach would ask whether the speech advocating illegal conduct could possibly cause illegal conduct, even if it did not do so in fact. If the speech met this test, the speaker could be arrested at that point. This was pretty much the approach of the Supreme Court, with Holmes and Brandeis dissenting in the 10’s and 20’s. A good early example is Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919).

The most speech-protective approach would never allow government to arrest the speaker. Government could arrest only those who acted illegally.

The Supreme Court never adopted this extreme speech-protective position but the Holmes-Brandeis clear and present danger test came close. This test was designed to keep the government’s hands off the speaker until the danger, i.e., the illegal conduct, was both imminent and serious. The powerful Enlightenment assumption of rationality underlying this test was that requiring government to wait until the last minute before intervening provided an opportunity for counter-speech that might, and hopefully would, prevent the illegal conduct. Holmes grounded the clear and present danger test on the marketplace of ideas rationale, while Brandeis grounded the test on the self-government and self-fulfillment rationales.

The Outcome

After almost a half-century’s experience by the nation and the Court with the political doctrines of anarchy, radicalism, syndicalism, socialism and Communism (see Dennis v. United States, 341 U. S. 494 (1951) on the last), the Court in 1969 finally came up with the test set out in Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969). This speech-protective test was based in large measure on the clear and present danger test, although it did not use the Holmes-Brandeis language.

Brandenburg essentially held that speech advocating illegal conduct could not be punished unless two conditions were met. The first was subjective: did the defendant intend to bring about imminent illegal conduct? The second was objective and predictive in nature: was imminent illegal conduct likely to occur as a result of the speaker’s advocacy of illegal conduct? If the answers were yes, then the speaker could be punished for the speech.

In a very real sense, this test demonstrates that the Supreme Court had learned over the years that government inevitably and quite naturally tends to over-predict danger.


As it turns out, the Brandenburg test is not universally applicable to many First Amendment issues beyond advocacy of illegal conduct. But it set the stage for what was to come in the remainder of the 20th century and beyond by emphasizing the importance of providing breathing space for free speech, particularly high-value political speech. It also reflected the Court’s suspicion of government motives when punishing speech.

The Brandenburg test can be understood as a kind of strict scrutiny test for speech because it places a very heavy burden of justification on government.

Written by snahmod

February 14, 2010 at 9:48 pm

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