Yates v. United States

354 U.S. 298 (1957)


The Smith Act was a vehicle to prosecute communist party officials. The Petitioners, 14 low ranking members of the California Communist Party, were convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the United States in violation of the Smith Act. The convictions were based on charges to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government by force and maintaining membership in an organization whose goal was to overthrow the government. The Petitioners claimed that the court's jury instructions were defective because the instructions failed to provide the correct definition of unprotected constitutional speech - which is language used to incite or provoke people to do an illegal activity but not abstract language used only to advocate a point (e.g. abstract advocacy). The Petitioners contended that the trial court's instruction impeded their First Amendment rights of Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Speech.

In contrast, the government contended that the trial court's instructions were correct because the focus should not have been on the character of the speech (as to whether it promoted illegal conduct or proffered abstract advocacy) but rather, whether the speech is connected to an illegal activity. The District Court held in favor of the Respondent. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and acquitted the 14 Petitioners.