DEBS v. UNITED STATES
The Espionage Act of 1917 made it a crime to "convey information with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the armed forces of the United States or to promote the success of its enemies." This had the effect of constraining sedition and political speech. On June 16, 1918, Eugene V. Debs, a leader of the Socialist Party of America, gave a speech in Canton, Ohio protesting involvement in World War I. During the speech, he discussed the rise of socialism and specifically praised individuals who had refused to serve in the military and obstructed military recruiting. For his speech, Debs was arrested and charged with violating the Espionage Act. At trial, Debs argued the Espionage Act violated his right to free speech under the First Amendment. A federal district court rejected his claim and sentenced Debs to ten years in prison.
Did Debs' conviction under the Espionage Act of 1917 violate his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech?
No. In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Court found that Debs' case was clearly similar to Schenck v. United States (1919). In Schenck, the Court had concluded that the arrest of an individual for distributing leaflets encouraging readers to oppose the draft was constitutional. The Court found Debs' sympathy for individuals convicted of opposing the draft and obstructing recruitment analogous to the situation in Schenck. Thus, Debs' conviction was upheld.