Gitlow v. New York in 1925: Summary & Decision

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  • 0:04 How Constitutional…
  • 0:34 Background
  • 1:56 The 14th Amendment…
  • 4:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
In this lesson we'll be looking at the Gitlow v. New York case, a landmark case in states' rights and the extent of the First Amendment. After learning about this important moment in history, you can test your knowledge with a quiz.

How Constitutional Rights Became American Rights

The 1st Amendment to the Constitution is a pretty big deal, mostly because of the broad scope of rights it guarantees, though the right it's most famous for is probably the right to free speech.

But there was a catch in the 1st Amendment. The rights guaranteed in the Amendment, and throughout the Bill of Rights, were extended to all Americans…but they were protections against the federal government. What about states? The U.S. government couldn't abridge your right to free speech…but could Virginia? Or Tennessee? Or New York?


Benjamin Gitlow was a member of the Socialist Party of America in 1919. In July of that year, he was arrested and charged with violating a law called the Criminal Anarchy Law, passed in New York state in 1902. The law said that it was illegal to commit criminal anarchy, by which the New York state legislature meant advocating the overthrow of the government by force. In particular, Gitlow was arrested for distributing copies of a pamphlet called 'Left-Wing Manifesto,' published in a newspaper he managed. Gitlow defended himself by pointing out that no violent action had resulted from the publication of the manifesto, which meant the law in question was penalizing statements without consequence. Despite this defense, in 1920 Benjamin Gitlow was convicted and sentenced to 5 to 10 years in prison.

Benjamin Gitlow

His appeal took three years to reach the Supreme Court, which had to grapple with an interesting question. Gitlow claimed he had the right to free speech, and New York's Criminal Anarchy Law was a violation of that right. Therefore, his conviction was unconstitutional. The Court could, of course, apply the 1st Amendment, which seemed tailor-made for the issue. But the problem was, did a federal right translate into the state? Was Gitlow guaranteed his rights at all levels of government?

The 14th Amendment Rescues the 1st

The Court rendered its decision in 1925, which amounted to a classic good news/bad news situation for Benjamin Gitlow. The Court, under Chief Justice William Howard Taft, ruled that the federal right to free speech did, in fact, extend to the states. They reached this conclusion by incorporating the right guaranteed to all citizens under the 14th Amendment, which was passed in 1868 and guaranteed two enormously important things to Americans: the right to due process , and the right to equal protection.

William Howard Taft, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1925

The Taft Court in 1925. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who wrote the dissenting opinion in the Gitlow case, is seated to the left of Taft

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