Global Freedom of Expression

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Masses Publishing Co. v. Patten

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Pamphlets / Posters / Banners
  • Date of Decision
    August 24, 1917
  • Outcome
    Other
  • Case Number
    244 F. 535
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    First Instance Court
  • Type of Law
    Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Content Regulation / Censorship, Political Expression
  • Tags
    Censorship, Cartoons, Publisher

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

A U.S. District Court determined that the Espionage Act did not prohibit the publication or distribution of cartoons critical of U.S. government actions and that the failure of the Postal Service to deliver the magazine would violate the First Amendment. The Plaintiff’s monthly magazine published four cartoons, with text, that criticized United States involvement in WWI, which the Defendant-Postmaster refused to deliver, claiming that they violated the Espionage Act of 1917.  The court found that the cartoons were opinions protected by the First Amendment and could not be censored or suppressed by the government.


Facts

The Espionage Act of 1917 prohibits anyone from making “false statements with the intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States or promote the success of its enemies;” “forbids any one from willfully causing insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States;” and “forbids any willful obstruction of the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States.”

Plaintiff’s monthly magazine published four cartoons, with text, that criticized the U.S.’s involvement in World War I. The Defendant-Postmaster refused to deliver the magazines, claiming that they violated the Espionage Act of 1917. Plaintiff filed a preliminary injunction, requesting that the Court require the Defendant to deliver its magazine because failure to do so violated the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, expression, and press.


Decision Overview

Judge Learned Hand determined that the Espionage Act does not prohibit the publication or distribution of the cartoons by mail, that the Plaintiff was not in violation of the Espionage Act, and that failure of the Defendant-Postmaster to mail the magazine would violate the First Amendment.  The Court found that the cartoons and texts, although critical of the U.S. government, were opinions protected by the First Amendment, and accordingly, they could not be censored or suppressed by the government.

The opinion was subsequently reversed.


Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

The Court’s Opinion expands expression because it recognizes the importance of a citizen’s right to criticize his or her government. The Court found that none of the cartoons incited insubordination or mutiny, but rather, they were a means of expressing opinion. The Court also recognized that one must analyze the actual words or pictures of the speaker, as opposed to the possible effect or likely result dervied from the publishing of the cartoons and text.

Judge Learned Hand’s Opinion is also significant because, as an early freedom of speech case, at the time it was not widely accepted by other judges. However, over time, the decision paved the way for other freedom of speech Opinions that expanded the right to expression.

Global Perspective

Quick Info

Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

Related International and/or regional laws

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.S., Espionage Act of 1917

Other national standards, law or jurisprudence

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

Decision (including concurring or dissenting opinions) establishes influential or persuasive precedent outside its jurisdiction.

It took many years after this decision for the U.S. courts began to expand freedom of expression case law.


Additional Citations:


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Amicus Briefs and Other Legal Authorities




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