Masses Publishing Co. v. Patten (1917)244 F. 535 (S.D.N.Y. 1917) | Judge Learned Hand
In an early test of the Espionage Act of 1917, Judge Learned Hand ruled that since the Espionage Act did not prohibit the publication or distribution of any materials by mail, the Postmaster of New York was obliged to deliver mail he judged to be seditious and that his failure to deliver such mail would violate the First Amendment. Though this decision was subsequently reversed by a higher court, Judge Hand’s decision offers an early example of the more libertarian understanding of First Amendment speech protection that would eventually be adopted by the Supreme Court. Hand’s example is known to have influenced the development of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ jurisprudence in the Espionage and Sedition Acts era.
The Espionage Act of 1917 prohibits anyone from making “false statements with the intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces of the United States or promote the success of its enemies;” “forbids any one from willfully causing insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty in the military or naval forces of the United States;” and “forbids any willful obstruction of the recruiting or enlistment service of the United States.”
Plaintiff’s monthly magazine published four cartoons, with text, that criticized the U.S.’s involvement in World War I. The Defendant-Postmaster refused to deliver the magazines, claiming that they violated the Espionage Act of 1917. Plaintiff filed a preliminary injunction, requesting that the Court require the Defendant to deliver its magazine because failure to do so violated the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, expression, and press.
Judge Learned Hand determined that the Espionage Act does not prohibit the publication or distribution of the cartoons by mail, that the Plaintiff was not in violation of the Espionage Act, and that failure of the Defendant-Postmaster to mail the magazine would violate the First Amendment. The Court found that the cartoons and texts, although critical of the U.S. government, were opinions protected by the First Amendment, and accordingly, they could not be censored or suppressed by the government.
The opinion was subsequently reversed.
Masses Publishing Co. v. Patten 244 F. 535 (S.D.N.Y. 1917)
A pdf is available through Eric E. Johnson’s Mass Media Law Compendium, an online casebook for mass media law. Click here to view Professor Johnson’s website. Another pdf is available for download or to read online at FIRE’s website.
Gunther, Gerald. “Learned Hand and the Origins of Modern First Amendment Doctrine: Some Fragments of History.” Stanford Law Review 27 (1975).
This article includes the correspondence between Masses judge Learned Hand and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes during the era of the Masses, Schenck, and Abrams decisions.
Facts and Decision Overview are from Columbia’s Global Freedom of Expression.