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The First Amendment Encyclopedia

Presented by the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies

Case Categories: Clear and Present Danger Test

Early in the 20th century, the Supreme Court established the clear and present danger test as the predominant standard for determining when speech is protected by the First Amendment.

The Court crafted the test — and the bad tendency test, with which it is often conflated or contrasted — in cases involving seditious libels, that is, criticisms of the government, its officials, or its policies. It would be superseded by the imminent lawless action test in the late 1960s.

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. delivered the classic statement of the clear and present danger test in Schenck v. United States (1919): “The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree. When a nation is at war many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured so long as men fight, and that no court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right.”

Following are Supreme Court cases related to the clear and present danger test.

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