Brandenburg's conviction was affirmed by an Ohio appellate court despite his claim that the statute violated his First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment right to freedom of speech. The Ohio Supreme Court dismissed his appeal without opinion. The rather cursory way in which the Ohio courts dismissed Brandenburg's constitutional arguments is unsurprising in light of the state of First Amendment law in the pre-Brandenburg era. Although Yates v. United States, 354 U.S. 298 (1957), had overturned the convictions of mid-level Communist Party members in language that seemed suggestive of a broader view of freedom of expression rights than had been accorded them in Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494 (1951), all Yates purported to do was construe a federal statute, the Smith Act. Thus, Dennis's reading of the First Amendment remained in force: advocacy of law violation, even as an abstract doctrine, could be punished under law consistent with the Free Speech Clause.
…Whitney has been thoroughly discredited by later decisions. See Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, at 507 (1951). These later decisions have fashioned the principle that the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.
The three distinct elements of this test (intent, imminence, and likelihood) have distinct precedential lineages. Judge Learned Hand was possibly the first judge to advocate the intent standard, in Masses Publishing Co. v. Patten, 244 F. 535 (S.D.N.Y. 1917), reasoning that "[i]f one stops short of urging upon others that it is their duty or their interest to resist the law, it seems to me one should not be held to have attempted to cause its violation." The Brandenburg intent standard is more speech-protective than Hand's formulation, which contained no temporal element.
The imminence element was a departure from earlier rulings. In Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919), the Court had adopted a "clear and present danger" test that Whitney v. California had expanded to a bad tendency test: if speech has a "tendency" to cause sedition or lawlessness, it may constitutionally be prohibited. Dennis v. United States, a case dealing with prosecution of alleged Communists under the Smith Act for advocating the overthrow of the government, used the clear and present danger test while still upholding the defendants' convictions for acts that could not possibly have led to a speedy overthrow of the government. Brandenburg did not explicitly overrule the bad tendency test, but it appears that after "Brandenburg" the test is de facto overruled. "Brandenburg" also made the time element of the clear and present danger test more defined and more rigorous.
Interestingly, the per curiam opinion cited to Dennis v. United States as though it were good law and amenable to the result reached in Brandenburg. In point of fact, Brandenburg essentially eviscerated Dennis's central holding and held that "mere advocacy" of any doctrine, including one that assumed the necessity of violence or law violation, was per se protected speech. It may be that principles of stare decisis figured in the Court's decision to avoid overruling the relatively recent Dennis, but the distance between the two cases' approach is obvious and irreconcilable.
Justice Douglas's concurrence reflected the absolutist position that only he and Black ever fully subscribed to, namely that the phrase "no law" in the First Amendment ought to be interpreted very literally, and that all speech is immune from prosecution, regardless of the governmental interests advanced in suppressing some particular instance of speech. He briefly traced the history of the clear and present danger test, illustrating how it had been used over the years since its debut in Schenck to dismiss dozens of what Douglas viewed as legitimate First Amendment claims.
A short but interesting section of Douglas's opinion indicated that he might be open to allowing the government greater latitude in controlling speech during time of "declared war" (making clear that he was not referring to the then-current Vietnam conflict), although he only phrased that possibility in terms of doubt (as opposed to his certainty that the clear and present danger test was irreconcilable with the First Amendment during time of peace).
Douglas also pointed out the legitimate role of symbolic speech in First Amendment doctrine, using examples of a person ripping up a Bible to celebrate the abandonment of his faith or tearing a copy of the Constitution in order to protest a Supreme Court decision, and assailed the previous term's United States v. O'Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968), which had allowed for the prosecution of a man for burning his draft card. In all these situations, Douglas argued, an action was a vital way of conveying a certain message, and thus the action itself deserved First Amendment protection.
Finally, Douglas dealt with the classic example of a man "falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic." In order to explain why someone could be legitimately prosecuted for this, Douglas called it an example in which "speech is brigaded with action." In the view of Douglas and Black, this was probably the only sort of case in which a person could be prosecuted for speech.