"advocacy intended, and likely, to incite imminent lawless action, see Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969);"

But don't the founding documents of the US enshrine the right of the people to overthrow a government when it no longer serves their democratic ends?

Are these two doctrines not in severe conflict? Is Revolution not intrinsically lawless action? For that matter how are offences like treason and conspiracy to overthrow the government or defying lawful authorities reconciled with this founding doctrine?

  • 6
    Which part of the Constitution of the United States "enshrines the right of the people to overthrow a government when it no longer serves their democratic ends"?
    – Lag
    Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 8:38
  • 1
    See also 18 USC Sections 2381, 2382, 2383, 2384, 2385. Treason, Sedition, and Subversive Activities. Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 9:34
  • 9
    The Declaration of Independence isn't law.
    – Lag
    Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 9:49
  • 10
    If a group is able to overthrow or successfully secede from a government, that government's laws would be irrelevant anyway. Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 11:54
  • 3
    The victor in a war, writes the law.
    – Trish
    Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 12:43

3 Answers 3


How can incitement of imminent lawless action not be constitutionally protected?

The short answer to your question is "because the Supreme Court of the United States said so."

In Brandenburg v. Ohio SCOTUS found that the Constitution protects speech that calls for lawless action in the abstract but does not protect speech "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action".

The court's per curiam opinion seems to treat the decision as self-evident - it's quite short after discussing the facts of the case.

However, Justice William O. Douglas wrote a concurring opinion (his "caveat") that discussed and was critical of previous decisions in such cases, including the use of the 'clear and present danger test', so his opinion is useful for a brief history of First Amendment judgments to that point (Brandenburg).

The Declaration of Independence is not law. Following "a history of repeated injuries and usurpations" and failures to reach political settlements it asserts a moral right to overthrow the tyranny of the British crown. It alludes to rights, it does not "enshrine" or create a legal right that the judiciary can interpret. Judges might refer to the Declaration in their judgments, not using it as legal authority but an articulation of fundamental values.

  • Well yes exactly. As you say, it is not law, but it is legally significant. I suppose the actual answer lies in the allowance of advocacy of deferred or nonspecific lawless action in the abstract, so I suppose they Thomas Paine's pamphlets would have been allowed under the first amendment but not shouting amidst a riotous mob around the Kenosha police station to rally everyone to charge inside "go go go go go!!!" Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 14:06
  • Is that about right? Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 14:06
  • 1
    @JosephP. I think so. Well, more pedantically, I think post-Brandenburg SCOTUS would find that such pamphlets were protected by the Constitution but pre-Brandenburg SCOTUS might disagree. That was the motif of Justice Douglas's complaint. But note there have been modern Supreme Court justices that have dissented from protecting 'radical' speech or other forms of expression such as flag burning.
    – Lag
    Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 14:39
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    +1 for mentioning that the Declaration of Independence has no force of Law. It should be pointed out though that there are a number of writings from Constitutional Framers that address the Second Amendment enshrined a right to defend one's life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness, however, it does not enshrine a right to rebel or violently overthrow the government so long as there are democratic means to do so. It's not the speediest process, and that's a feature, not a bug, of the U.S. Government.
    – hszmv
    Commented Jul 8, 2022 at 14:52
  • 1
    @bdb484 I think it's a very helpful answer (if correct). Say you are suspected of a crime, and a court sends you to jail. In your situation, maybe you are not in jail because you committed a crime (you didn't actually) or because there was evidence against you (there wasn't actually), but because the jury found you guilty (which they did, even though you were innocent and there was no evidence), Now you ask "why am I in jail" and the correct answer is "because the jury found you guilty". Maybe a level deeper "because the jury was bribed / were brainless idiots".
    – gnasher729
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 11:38

Revolution is not "intrinsically lawless action," so it is not necessarily illegal to "overthrow a government." Indeed, the U.S. Constitution provides democratic means by which the people can do just that.

As your comment noted, the Declaration of Independence says the people may "alter or abolish" the government. So if you are advocating to overthrow the government by voting in a new party or government, or if you are advocating to amend or even repeal the Constitution, you are not advocating a violation of the law, and your speech therefore remains protected.

But there is no law that says you may establish a new government through violent force or coercion. So if you are advocating to assassinate a government official or interfere with the peaceful transfer of power, you are advocating a violation of the law, and your speech may no longer be protected.

  • 1
    Overthrowing the government is illegal in U.S. law and the American Revolution was itself a serious felony crime for all of its participants. Replacing one set of elected officials with another is not overthrowing the government.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 21:43
  • I think we've probably just got some definitional differences here. I assume you'd agree that overthrow/revolution are not unlawful when achieved through the political process?
    – bdb484
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 13:40
  • That isn't an "overthrow/revolution." An "overthrow/revolution" involved a change of regime, not merely a change of personnel.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 18:01
  • Accepting that definition, though, can't regime change be effected through a political process? If the country amends the constitution to wipe out Congress and install the Trumps as dynastic monarchs, that's still legal, isn't it?
    – bdb484
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 21:23

I have the constitutionally protected right to my life, and not to be injured. If that conflicts with someone's constitutionally protected right to incite unlawfulness then they cannot both be protected at the same time. I think my right to not be harmed trumps your right to spew hatred.

  • I'm not sure how this is mean to answer the question.
    – bdb484
    Commented Oct 24, 2023 at 21:26

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