In Schneiderman v. United States , 320 U.S. 118 (1943), the Supreme Court overturned a decision to strip an immigrant of naturalized citizenship because of his membership in the Communist Party. While the case was largely decided on grounds other than the First Amendment, the majority opinion invoked its relationship to freedom of thought protected under the First Amendment.
William Schneiderman came to the United States from Russia in 1907 or 1908 when he was about 3 years old. He had become a member of the Young Workers or Communist Party when he was 16 and had applied for U.S. citizenship at the age of 18, which he got in 1927. Although Schneiderman had been a law-abiding citizen, both a lower district and circuit court had ruled that he should lose his citizenship. The courts had concluded Schneiderman’s citizenship was obtained through fraud because, they reasoned, it was not possible to be devoted to the U.S. Constitution (as naturalization laws require) while maintaining membership and holding offices in a party that was devoted to the dictatorship of the proletariat and that advocated violent revolution.
Justice Francis “Frank” Murphy delivered the opinion overturning the lower court decisions, with Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone and Justices Owen Roberts and Felix Frankfurter dissenting.
Naturalized citizen case examines freedom of belief
Much of the decision focused on the degree to which Schneiderman accepted communist theories in practice as opposed to believing them in theory and the degree to which an organization’s views could be imputed to its members. These questions were further entwined with how much proof should be required to strip an individual of citizenship, which the court majority thought should be quite high.
However, Murphy further tied these issues to First Amendment values. He observed that “because of our firmly rooted tradition of freedom of belief, we certainly will not presume in construing the naturalization and denaturalization acts that Congress meant to circumscribe liberty of political thought by general phrases in those statutes.” Citing a dissenting opinion by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes in an earlier case, Murphy said that general phrases “should be construed, not in opposition to, but in accord with, the theory and practice of our Government in relation to freedom of conscience.”
Noting that Congress had forbidden the naturalization of anarchists, polygamists, and those who advocated political assassination, he did not believe that the law was designed to exclude those with aberrant political beliefs. Murphy noted that “under our traditions, beliefs are personal and not a matter of mere association, and that men adhering to a political party or other organization notoriously do not subscribe unqualifiedly to all of its platforms or asserted principles.”
Murphy: Founders did not intend to offer naturalization to only those with same political views
In a somewhat unusual argument, which has been explicate in a law review article by Jonathan Marshfield (2016), Murphy observed that the authors of the Constitution anticipated change both when they put minimal limits on amendments that could be offered under Article V of the Constitution and when they guaranteed “freedom of thought” in the First Amendment.
“In view of our tradition of freedom of thought, it is not to be presumed that Congress in the [Naturalization] Act of 1907, or its predecessors of 1794 and 1802, intended to offer naturalization only to those whose political views coincide with those considered best by the founders in 1787 or by the majority in this country today,” Murphy wrote. He further pointed out that Abraham Lincoln and those who had supported the abolition of slavery with the 13th Amendment could hardly be considered to be disloyal even though they favored abolishing the institution of slavery, which the Constitution at the time permitted.
“If any provisions of the Constitution can be singled out as requiring unqualified attachment, they are the guarantees of the Bill of Rights and especially that of freedom of thought contained in the First Amendment,” Murphy wrote. Believing that Congress intended to preserve “the free play of ideas,” Murphy further noted that Schneiderman had been a law-abiding citizen.
Murphy observes difference in calling for violent action and political beliefs
Applying a standard that was commonly used at the time in speech cases, Murphy observed that “(t)here is a material difference between agitation and exhortation calling for present violent action which creates a clear and present danger of public disorder or other substantive evil, and mere doctrineal justification or prediction of the use of force under hypothetical conditions at some indefinite future time-prediction that is not calculated or intended to be presently acted upon.” This construction of congressional law was preferable “because it preserves for novitiates as well as citizens the full benefit of that freedom of thought which is a fundamental feature of our political institutions.”
In a concurring opinion, Justice William O. Douglass noted that the law had not made membership in the Communist Party illegal. Lacking such plain words, “we should be loathe to imply that Congress sanctioned a procedure which in absence of fraud permitted a man’s citizenship to be attacked years after the grant because of his political beliefs, social philosophy, or economic theories. We should not tread so close to the domain of freedom of conscience without an explicit mandate from those who specify the conditions on which citizenship is granted to or withheld from aliens.” In a separate concurrence, Justice Wiley Rutledge emphasized that retroactively revoking naturalization leads to a “citizenship in attenuated, if not suspended, animation.”
Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone wrote the sole written dissent. Stone thought that the lower courts were in a better position to judge whether Schneiderman had or had not obtained his citizenship fraudulently. Denying that this was “a question of freedom of thought, of speech, of opinion, or of present imminent danger to the United States,” Stone thought the case simply involved whether Congress had a right to withhold or withdraw citizenship from immigrants who were not attached to American values, He cited other cases where courts had assented to such withdrawals. Stone further believed that, as an educated individual, Schneiderman was in a position to realize that the Communist Party of which he was a member advocated violent revolution and did not believe in the freedoms enunciated in the Bill of Rights. He contrasted the communist belief in revolution with the orderly procedures that Article V of the Constitution had outlined for orderly constitutional change.
John R. Vile is a political science professor and dean of the University Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University and the author of “A Companion to the United States Constitution and Its Amendments,” soon to be published in its 7th edition. This article was published Oct. 13, 2021.