Dejonge v. Oregon 1937

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DeJonge v. Oregon 1937

Petitioner: Dirk De Jonge

Respondent: State of Oregon

Petitioner's Claim: That his conviction for attending and speaking at a meeting organized by the Communist Party violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Osmond K. Fraenkel

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: Maurice E. Tarshis

Justices for the Court: Louis D. Brandeis, Pierce Butler, Benjamin N. Cardozo, Charles Evans Hughes (writing for the Court), James Clark McReynolds, Owen Josephus Roberts, George Sutherland, Willis Van Devanter

Justices Dissenting: None (Harlan Fiske Stone did not participate)

Date of Decision: January 4, 1937

Decision: Conviction for attending a peaceable assembly violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Significance: Although the First Amendment prevents only the federal government from violating the right to freedom of assembly, the Court protected freedom of assembly from state action by using the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Freedom to revolt

The U.S. Constitution protects freedom for all citizens, even those who want to overthrow the federal government. Communism, for example, competed with the U.S. system of capitalism for world domination during most of the twentieth century. Communism is a political and economic system that aims to achieve equality for all people through government ownership of property. Capitalism is based on property ownership by individuals. Communists believe that workers under capitalism suffer to make business and property owners wealthy.

In 1917 the Communist Party took control of the government in Russia. In 1922 Russia and neighboring communist countries formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), known as the Soviet Union for short. The Soviet government's goal was to spread communism throughout the world, by force and violence if necessary.

In the United States at the time, workers and members of the Communist Party tried to fight against capitalism. In 1905, for example, workers formed a labor union called the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The union's goal was to replace capitalism with an economy run by the workers. Because the Soviet Union became a powerful country under communism, some people in the United States feared that groups like the IWW would succeed.

To fight against communism and the IWW, many states, including Oregon, passed laws called criminal syndicalism statutes (syndicalism is an economic system in which workers own and manage industry). Oregon's law made it a felony to support crime, violence, or destruction to make changes in government or industry. Because communism supported the violent overthrow of capitalist governments, Oregon used its syndicalism statute to put members of the Communist Party in jail.

Protesting police brutality

Dirk De Jonge was a member of the Communist Party. On July 27, 1934, De Jonge spoke at a meeting held by the Communist Party in Portland, Oregon. The purpose of the meeting was to protest police raids of workers' halls and homes, and police shootings of seamen who were on strike. At the meeting, De Jonge advertised communist literature and asked everyone to work harder to recruit members for the Communist Party. De Jonge did not, however, speak in favor of violence, destruction, or other criminal means of change or revolution.

Oregon charged De Jonge with violating its criminal syndicalism statute. At his trial, De Jonge made a motion to dismiss the case, which means to throw it out of court. De Jonge argued that there was no evidence that he had spoken in favor of unlawful conduct. The trial court denied De Jonge's motion, convicted him, and sentenced him to imprisonment for seven years. The Supreme Court of Oregon affirmed, that is, agreed with the decision. De Jonge appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A victory for freedom of assembly

The Supreme Court reversed De Jonge's conviction. It saw no evidence that De Jonge had spoken in favor of violence against government or industry. Instead, the conviction violated De Jonge's right to freedom of assembly. The Communist Party held the meeting to protest peacefully against police brutality. The Court said, "The very idea of a government, republican in form, implies a right on the part of its citizens to meet peaceably."

The First Amendment, which is the source for the guarantee of freedom of assembly, applies only to the federal government. The Court wrote, however, that state governments, including Oregon's, must guarantee freedom of assembly because of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That clause says, "No State . . . shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." The Court said this means that "peaceable assembly cannot be made a crime."


U .S. industry thrived at the beginning of the twentieth century thanks to inventions such as electricity and the internal combustion engine. The growth of factories, however, led to poor and unsafe working conditions for employees. Some people formed labor unions to fight for better working conditions.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), formed in 1905, had more radical plans. IWW's goal was to replace capitalism with an economy run by the workers. IWW supported strikes and other forms of interference with factory production lines. Composers inspired IWW members with songs such as "Dump the Bosses off Your Back." Other unions, however, were more popular with workers who wished to preserve American capitalism, and the IWW faded away by the late 1920s.

The freedom of assembly provided by the First Amendment is only one of many rights protected by the Bill of Rights, which contains the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Bill of Rights requires only the federal government to recognize these freedoms. The De Jonge decision was part of an important trend to prevent state governments from interfering with rights contained in the Bill of Rights. Over time, the Supreme Court has used the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to hold state governments to almost everything in the Bill of Rights.

Suggestions for further reading

King, David C. Freedom of Assembly. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1997.

Klinker, Philip A. The First Amendment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Silver Burdett Press, 1991.

Lucas, Eric. Corky: Adventure Stories for Young People. New York, NY: International Publishers, 1938.

Pascoe, Elaine. Freedom of Expression: The Right to Speak Out in America. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1992.

World Book Encyclopedia, 1997 ed., entries on "Communism," "Industrial Workers of the World," "Labor movement," "Syndicalism." Chicago, IL: World Book, 1997.