Pennsylvania v. Nelson, 350 U.S. 497; 76 S. Ct. 477; 100 L. Ed. 640 (1956)

Pennsylvania v. Nelson, 350 U.S. 497; 76 S. Ct. 477; 100 L. Ed. 640 (1956)

Facts—An acknowledged member of the Communist Party, Steve Nelson was convicted in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, of violation of the Pennsylvania Sedition Act. He was sentenced to imprisonment and fine. While the Pennsylvania statute proscribes sedition against either the government of the United States or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, this case was concerned only with alleged sedition against the United States.

Question—Does the Smith Act of 1940, which prohibits the knowing advocacy of the overthrow of the government of the United States by force and violence, supersede the enforceability of the Pennsylvania Sedition Act?


ReasonsC.J. Warren (6–3). The Court examined the various federal acts on the subject, including the Internal Security Act of 1950 and the Communist Control Act of 1954, as well as the Smith Act, and concluded that Congress had intended to occupy the entire field of sedition. These acts, taken as a whole, “evince a congressional plan which makes it reasonable to determine that no room has been left for the states to supplement it.      ‘Sedition against the United States is not a local offense. It is a crime against the Nation.’ . . .

It is not only important but vital that such prosecutions should be exclusively within the control of the federal government.” The Court went on to note that enforcement of state sedition statutes would present a serious danger of conflict with the administration of the federal program and would produce conflicting or incompatible court decisions.

“Since we find that Congress has occupied the field to the exclusion of parallel state legislation, that the dominant interest of the federal government precludes state intervention, and that administration of state acts would conflict with the operation of the federal plan, we are convinced that” the state statute cannot stand. “Without compelling indication to the contrary, we will not assume that Congress intended to permit the possibility of double punishment.”

J. Reed, dissenting, denied that Congress had attempted to preclude state sedition regulations and even cited a provision of the U.S. Code that provided for state jurisdiction in such cases.

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