Brandenburg v. Ohio Case: Summary, Outline, and Results

Summary of the Case

Clarence Brandenburg, a leader of a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in a rural part of Ohio, contacted a reporter for news coverage of a rally happening in Hamilton in the summer of 1964. Several prominent local KKK members delivered speeches during the event, one of them being Brandenburg. The information contained within at least a part of these speeches referenced the possible action against the government and racial/ethnic minorities, including black people and Jews (Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969)). Plans to march on Washington, DC, during national independence day, were also made clear. The subsequent rally was filmed and broadcast on television. After the broadcast, state authorities arrested Brandenburg for potential violation of the first amendment and the advocating of violence under the criminal syndicalism statute present in Ohio.

Initially, the ruling was made against Brandenburg, with the statutes being cited as against the advocacy of violence and unlawful action to accomplish particular political and industrial goals. The man was to pay a 1000$ USD fine and be sent to prison for 1 to 10 years (Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969)). Initially, the defendant appealed the ruling, which was upheld without opinion. However, the decision was made by the Ohio supreme court and was later overturned by the U.S. supreme court instead. The eight remaining members of the court, excluding one resigned member, unanimously changed the conviction. A new test was issued as a result of this decision as a way to determine cases of violating the first amendment.

Case Outline

  • Title: Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969).
  • Facts of the case: Clarence Brandenburg participated in a KKK rally, giving a speech targeted at violent and unlawful action against the government and racial minorities, including incitement of a march on the U.S. capital. The man was charged under the Ohio criminal syndicalism law, resulting in a fine and a 1 to 10 year time in prison (Walker). The ruling was unsuccessfully appealed by the defendant and civil organizations. After the involvement of the U.S. supreme court, the decision was changed due to a majority vote.
  • History of the case: The case was primarily constructed based on the Ohio criminal syndicalism law, which was used during the post-war period as a part of the Red Scare. The legislation was designed to prevent the spread of socialism and communism through violent societal change. The advocacy of violence was seen as a direct threat to the free speech of the American citizenry. The case was also partially based on the Whitney v. California case, where a woman working with the communist party was declared to be guilty of potentially inciting violence.
  • Legal questions: The major legal issue that had to be decided in this case came from interpreting the capacity of a rally speech and KKK rhetoric expressed at the event to directly incite violence or encourage certain kinds of behavior. The protection of hate speech under the first amendment as a way for a person to express their views was also involved.
  • Decision or holdings: The U.S. supreme court has overturned the conviction made by the Ohio court. The decision was made because the criminal syndicalism statute was seen as violating the first amendment. Ohio law used broad terminology to prohibit violence, which then limited the free speech of individuals.
  • Verdict and opinion (judgment): All of the present judges decided to change their ruling as a result of the U.S. supreme court interference, choosing to declare the defendant not guilty.


The result of this ruling was a change in the way the first amendment violations were treated in the state of Ohio. In particular, this case directly influenced other similar trials, including Whitney v. California, Schenck v. the United States, Abrams v. the United States, Gitlow v. New York, and Dennis v. United States (Mineshima-Lowe). The first case, in particular, changed its conclusion as a direct result of the Brandenburg trial. Advocacy of violence or illegal actions in the state of Ohio was henceforth only punished if they had a high probability of producing unlawful action. The court then used its testing to decide the potential threat and degree of danger presented in each case of violent advocacy (Walker). Additionally, the results of this decision have determined the position of hate speech in relation to the first amendment and the right of people to voice their opinions (Walker).

As a result of this case, any cases of hateful rhetoric that did not directly incite violent or unlawful action from others were considered to be protected under the U.S. constitution. Lastly, the decision has sparked active debate on the role of the government and the justice system in controlling speech and various types of political advocacy in particular. The case has become a useful and effective landmark for deciding on the validity of future claims on similar charges and a way for courts to tailor their decisions according to the set precedent.


Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969). Justia Law. (n.d.). Web.

Mineshima-Lowe, D. (n.d.). Criminal syndicalism laws. Web.

Walker, J. L. (n.d.). Brandenburg v. Ohio. Web.

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LawBirdie. "Brandenburg v. Ohio Case: Summary, Outline, and Results." July 9, 2023.