De Jonge v. Oregon: The Background
The case of De Jonge v. Oregon revolved around a meeting held by the Communist Party on July 27th of 1934. During this meeting Dirk De Jonge addressed the attendees regarding jail conditions in the county and a maritime strike in Portland. While the meeting was in progress, state police raided it. De Jonge was detained and charged with violating Oregon’s criminal syndicalism statute. This law defined criminal syndicalism as the doctrine which advocates illegal activities, including physical violence, sabotage or any illegal acts as a means of effecting or accomplishing political or industrial change or revolution.
Following his conviction, De Jonge appealed, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to warrant a punishment. Initially the Oregon State Supreme Court disagreed by stating that the courts did not indict him based on criminal syndicalism, but rather the he conducted and assisted in conducting a meeting of people called forth by the Communist Party. This action in and of itself was defined as the unlawful avocation and teaching in Multnomah county based on the locality’s doctrine of sabotage and syndicalism.
De Jonge v. Oregon: The Question
The question of De Jonge v. Oregon revolved around whether or not Oregon’s criminal syndicalism statute violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
De Jonge v. Oregon: The Decision
In De Jonge v. Oregon, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the state’s criminal syndicalism statute did indeed violate the due process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
In the opinion delivered by Chief Justice Charles Hughes, the United States Supreme Court held that the Oregon law, as applied by the enforcement officers of the state, directly violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
After reviewing the details of De Jonge v. Oregon, the Supreme Court determined that De Jonge’s only offense was assisting in a public meeting held by the Communist Party. The Supreme Court reasoned that to preserve the rights of Free Speech under the First Amendment and peaceable assemblies as directed by the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court must rule on the principles of the meeting and whether the tone or remarks made transcend the boundaries of free speech. This premise or evaluation did not occur in De Jonge’s case.
De Jonge v. Oregon
One of the rights that Americans hold most dear is their right to free speech and assembly. Intrusions on these rights have historically been met with anger and litigation. But what are the limits of the freedom of assembly? In 1934, Oregon made use of a criminal syndicalism statute to place a leader of a local Communist Party organization under arrest. This statute was challenged in De Jonge v. Oregon, a case that would make it substantially easier for organizations in the United States to meet without police harassment or arrests.
Dirk De Jonge's Speech and Arrest
In 1934, Portland's Communist Party held a meeting to discuss a port strike that was currently in progress. One of the speakers at this party meeting, Dirk De Jonge, gave a speech that touched not only on the maritime strike, but also on the conditions at the local Multnomah County jail. At this time, police and labor tensions had risen to a fever pitch: police had actually shot several people involved in the maritime strike, and raids had occurred on workers' homes and meeting places.
De Jonge was interrupted in the middle of his speech by police, who shut down the Communist Party gathering and arrested those present, including De Jonge. De Jonge v. Oregon began when De Jonge sued the state, saying that his constitutionally protected rights to free speech and assembly had been unlawfully breached by the police in Portland.
Limits to Free Assembly and Speech
While it may seem like De Jonge v. Oregon would be a very cut and dried case about First Amendment rights, the question being asked was really how much revolution a person could discuss without violating the law. At a certain point, speech becomes action—if a speaker, for instance, was three blocks from the White House, in front of an angry mob carrying torches, making a speech about how it was imperative that the White House be burned down would be considered incitement. Where's the line where protected speech becomes non-protected incitement?
Supreme Court Ruling
The Supreme Court ruled in De Jonge v. Oregon that the state of Oregon's criminal syndicalism statute had in fact violated De Jonge's right to freely assemble and speak. According to the court, De Jonge had not actually been responsible for any criminal syndicalism, regardless of whether the Communist Party was actually a criminal syndicate.
According to the Court in De Jonge v. Oregon, prosecuting De Jonge under the criminal syndicalism statute violated his due process rights, because a speaker's marks should be evaluated on their own merits rather than by simply lumping the person in under the auspices of the meeting he or she has attended.
Later Rulings Affecting Assembly
While this ruling would protect the right of people to meet in Communist Party meetings in the United States for some time, in 1951 another ruling would supercede De Jonge v. Oregon. Anti-communist fervor in the 1950s would culminate in McCarthyism and the widespread prosecution and disenfranchisement of anyone even suspected of belonging to the Communist Party.