• Last updated on November 11, 2022

In reversing the convictions of some Communist Party leaders under the 1940 Smith Act, the Supreme Court signaled a change in the direction of its treatment of unpopular organizations.

Fourteen leaders in the Communist Party were convicted of conspiracy under the 1940 Smith Act. The facts of this case almost exactly match those of Dennis v. United States[case]Dennis v. United States[Dennis v. United States] (1951), in which the Supreme Court upheld the convictions of eleven people under the 1940 act. In Yates, the Court found two reasons to dismiss these convictions, but the real changes were in the composition of the Court, the attitudes of the justices, and the political climate. Justice John M. Harlan IIHarlan, John M., II;Yates v. United States[Yates v. United States] wrote the 6-1 majority opinion attempting to reconcile the Court’s actions in Yates with those in Dennis by asserting that the instructions to the jury failed to note the difference between advocacy of an abstract doctrine and specific actions, as Court decisions going back to Gitlow v. New York[case]Gitlow v. New York[Gitlow v. New York] (1925) had required. The Court also held that the Smith Act was overbroad in that the word “organize,” contained in its text, was vague as the government itself admitted. These two critical distinctions meant that the Smith Act was now virtually worthless for future prosecution. No further cases were brought under it, although nine of the fourteen Yates defendants were ordered to face a new trial. Justices Hugo L. Black and William O. Douglas dissented, arguing that the Smith Act was unconstitutional and that all defendants should be released.CommunismSmith ActAssembly and association, freedom of;Yates v. United States[Yates v. United States]CommunismSmith Act

Albertson v. Subversive Activities Control Board

Bad tendency test

Clear and present danger test

Communist Party v. Subversive Activities Control Board

Dennis v. United States

Gitlow v. New York

Scales v. United States

Smith Act

Subversion

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