Case Summary and Outcome
Brandenburg was convicted of violating the Ohio Criminal Syndicalism Act for derogatory phrases that he uttered at a Ku Klux Klan rally. The Ohio Criminal Syndicalism Act outlawed “advocating” violence as a way to change political and economic situations, and prohibited individuals from assembling for the purpose of advocating criminal syndicalism. The Supreme Court held that the act violated the First Amendment for failing to distinguish between mere advocacy and incitement to imminent lawless action.
Brandenburg, who was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan, made a speech at a rally that advocated violence. As a result of the speech, Brandenburg was criminally charged under the Ohio Criminal Syndicalism Act. The Act prohibited individuals from advocating for “crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform,” and “voluntarily assembl[ing] with any society, group, or assemblage of persons formed to teach or advocate the doctrines of criminal syndicalism.”
Brandenburg was convicted, fined $1000, and sentenced to 1-to-10 years of imprisonment. He challenged the constitutionality of the Criminal Syndicalism Statute under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The intermediate appellate court of Ohio affirmed his conviction without opinion. The Supreme Court of Ohio dismissed his appeal.
Per Curiam. The U.S. Supreme Court found that the Ohio law violated Brandenburg’s right to freedom of speech. The Court used a two-pronged test to evaluate laws affecting speech acts: 1. speech can be prohibited if its purpose is to incite or produce imminent lawless action; and 2. doing so is likely to incite or produce such an action. Additionally, the Court found that abstract discussions are not the same as actually preparing or inciting individuals to engage in illegal acts.