Lesson Plan: Landmark Supreme Court Case: Schenck v United States (1919)

U.S. Involvement in WWI

Beverly Gage provides background information on the U.S. involvement in WWI.


Schenck v United States helped define the limits of the First Amendment right to free speech, particularly during wartime. It created the “clear and present danger” standard, which explains when the consequences of speech allow the government to limit it. In this case, the Court chose to unanimously uphold activist Charles Schenck’s conviction after he distributed leaflets urging young men to resist the draft during World War I.


  • STEP 1.

    As a class, view the following videos and answer the questions below to lay the foundation for students to understand this case:

    VIDEO CLIP: United States Involvement in World War I (4:04)

    VIDEO CLIP: The Espionage Act (2:56)

    VIDEO CLIP: Background of Schenck v. United States (4:38)

    • Why was the decision for the U.S. to become involved in WWI such a contentious debate?

    • Explain the context in which the U.S. Congress felt it had to pass the Espionage Act.

    • Explain the effect the Espionage Act had during this time.

    • Explain the purpose of the flier that was produced by Charles Schneck.

    • What Constitutional foundations were cited in this document?

    • According to Thomas Goldstein, what was illegal about this document?

    • How powerful was this argument among people in the U.S.?

    • Explain how the Charles Schenck case made its way to the Supreme Court.
  • STEP 2.

    Students can either work independently or in groups to view the following video clips. They should take notes using the handout below:

    Handout: Supreme Court Case: Schenck v. U.S. (Google Doc)

  • VIDEO CLIP: Key Questions and Decision (3:23)

    • Explain the four key questions in Schenck vs. United States and how each were answered by the Court's decision.

    • Describe the argument of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in his majority opinion.

    • Explain the significance of the decision in Schenck v. United States.
  • VIDEO CLIP: Significance (:35)

    • Explain the significance of Schenck v. United States.
  • VIDEO CLIP: Modern Free Speech and the Supreme Court (2:38)

    • Explain Justice Antonin Scalia's argument regarding freedom of speech in cases regarding unpopular speech.

    • According to Tom Goldstein, where does the United States stand on free speech compared to during the Schenck case?

    • Describe the legacy of Schenck v. United States according to Beverly Gage.

Additional Resource


  • 1st Amendment
  • Clear And Present Danger
  • Conscription Act
  • Draft
  • Espionage Act
  • Freedom Of Speech
  • Justice Department
  • Repeal
  • Sedition Act
  • World War I


Civil Rights & Civil LibertiesJudicial BranchSupreme Court CasesU.S. History


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