Criminal Anarchy (NYPL 240.15)

Criminal anarchy in the United States is the doctrine that organized government should be overthrown by force or violence, or by assassination of the executive head or of any of the executive officials of government, or by any unlawful means. The term sedition is synonymous with criminal anarchy. In New York, one of the first communists arrested was Benjamin Gitlow, a former socialist assemblyman and founder of the communist labor parties organized in 1919. Gitlow’s appeal to the Supreme Court, in Gitlow v. New York (June 8, 1925), was the occasion for the Court to incorporate First Amendment protection of freedom of speech into the Fourteenth Amendment, making it applicable to the states. Instead of passing a new antiradical statute after the war, New York chose to resurrect a 1902 Criminal Anarchy Act, enacted shortly after the assassination of president William McKinley. Rarely used before 1919, the law defined criminal anarchy, as the doctrine that organized government should be overthrown by force or violence, by the assassination of executive officials, or by any other unlawful means. By the early 1920s, 30 states had some variation of a criminal syndicalism or Criminal Anarchy act. New York State on this day enacted a Criminal Anarchy law, making it a crime to advocate the violent overthrow of the government. The New York Criminal Anarchy law was repealed on July 20, 1965. Under N.Y. Pen. Law § 240.15, a person is guilty of criminal anarchy when:

  • he/she advocates the overthrow of the existing form of government of this state by violence, or
  • with knowledge of its contents, he/she publishes, sells or distributes any document which advocates such violent overthrow, or
  • with knowledge of its purpose, he/she becomes a member of any organization which advocates such violent overthrow.

Criminal anarchy is a class E felony.

At the federal level, criminal anarchy is criminalized by 18 U.S.C. § 2385, which makes it an offense punishable by 20 years’ imprisonment to advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government.

Being convicted of a felony could cost you your right to vote, your right to be employed in certain professions, and your right to hold certain permits or licenses. If you are suspected of a criminal anarchy offense, you may require the services of a criminal defense lawyer to present your defense or negotiate a penalty.