Expansion of Expression

Schenck v. United States (1919)

Case background and primary source documents concerning the Supreme Court case of Schenck v. United States. Dealing with the First Amendment’s free speech protections and whether it has limits during wartime, this lesson asks students to evaluate the Supreme Court’s limitations of free speech set forth in Schenck.

Founding Principles

Freedom of Speech image

Freedom of Speech

The freedom to express one's opinions without interference from the the government is critical to the maintenance of liberty within a free society.

Case Background

The United States instituted a military draft during World War I. More than 24 million men registered for the draft, and over 2.5 million men were actually drafted into the military. Socialist Party member Charles Schenck opposed the war as well as the military draft.

Schenck distributed leaflets urging recently drafted men to resist the draft. He exhorted draftees to resist the draft because the Thirteenth Amendment prohibited “involuntary servitude” in the United States. He condemned the federal government, the war and the draft with very strong language, but he advocated only peaceful resistance. Schenck was charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it a crime to, among other things, “obstruct the recruiting or enlistment service.”

Schenck challenged his conviction on First Amendment grounds. His case went to the Supreme Court, which had to consider if freedom of speech is an absolute right and, if not, under what circumstances it may be limited in wartime.

What restrictions can be placed on the First Amendment’s right to free speech? This video asks students to explore this question and the landmark case of Schenck v. United States.

Key Question

Critique the Supreme Court’s limitation of free speech in wartime in Schenck v. United States.


Read the Case Background and Key Question. Then analyze Documents A-I. Finally, answer the Key Question in a well-organized essay that incorporates your interpretations of Documents A-I, as well as your own knowledge of history.


Documents you will examine:

  1. The First Amendment, 1791
  2. President Woodrow Wilson, State of the Union Address, 1915
  3. Section 3 of the Espionage Act, 1917
  4. Masses Publishing Co. v. Patten, United States District Court, 1917
  5. “Policeman Clearing City Hall Park,” 1917
  6. Schenck’s Circular, 1917
  7. “First Number Chosen in World War I Draft Lottery,” 1918
  8. Unanimous Majority Opinion, Schenck v. United States, 1919
  9. “As Gag Rulers Would Have It,” Literary Digest, 1920

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