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Abrams v. United States

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Significance: Oliver Wendell Holmes, in his dissent to this 1919 case in which the Supreme Court upheld convictions of Russian anarchists on sedition charges, clarified and limited the clear and present danger test he had created.


In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction and lengthy prison terms of five Russian anarchists who had written and distributed English- and Yiddish-language leaflets criticizing the United States for sending troops to Russia during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The anarchists were indicted under the Sedition Act of 1918, which made it a crime to criticize the government or advocate disruption of the war effort. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes had previously written the unanimous opinions in Schenck v. United States (1919) upholding the 1917 Espionage Act and Debs v. United States (1919) upholding the 1918 Sedition Act. After being criticized by influential friends, he dissented in Abrams, setting the limits of what he meant by the clear and present danger test. Holmes insisted that the test required a readily apparent, imminent danger before the government could restrict speech. His Abrams dissent is regarded as one of his best and is widely quoted, but it did not persuade a majority of the other justices. The Court struggled for decades with varying definitions of the clear and present danger test before it adopted the direct incitement test in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969).