Barenblatt v. United States, 360 U.S. 109 (1959)

In 1954, Lloyd Barenblatt was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which was investigating communist activities and organizations. Barenblatt refused to say if he was a member of the Communist Party or had belonged to the Communist Party’s Haldene Club while a graduate student at the University of Michigan. He was convicted in federal court of contempt of Congress, fined $250, and sentenced to six months in prison. He appealed the conviction, arguing that HUAC had violated his freedoms of thought, speech, press, and association. He added that, regardless of how he answered HUAC’s questions, his social standing and ability to earn a living would be jeopardized. In 1959, a five-to-four majority of the Supreme Court rejected Barenblatt’s arguments and reaffirmed his conviction.

The stage for the Barenblatt decision had been indirectly set by two 1957 decisions. In Watkins v. United States, the Court overturned a conviction for contempt of Congress for another communist sympathizer who had refused to answer HUAC’s questions. In Yates v. United States, the Court ordered the acquittal of five communist defendants and sent back to the lower courts the cases of nine others in prosecutions under the federal Smith Act. Anticommunist conservatives were outraged by the decisions and dubbed June 17, 1957, the day on which both decisions were rendered, ‘‘Red Monday.’’ Senator William Jenner of Indiana even introduced a bill to limit the Court’s power to decide loyalty and subversion appeals.

The majority of the Court in Barenblatt retreated from Watkins, helped protect existing appellate jurisdiction, and to some extent defused political criticism. The authority of HUAC to conduct its investigation, Justice John Marshall Harlan II said, was unassailable, and it was indeed a violation of federal law when Barenblatt refused to answer. Furthermore, Harlan added, the balance between the individual and the government must be struck in favor of the government.

Dissenting justices were more sensitive to the civil liberties issues raised by the case. Justice Hugo Black, in a dissent joined by Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justice William O. Douglas, asserted that HUAC’s goal was less investigative than judicial. HUAC wanted to try and punish suspected communists, but congressional committees did not have these judicial powers. Black also insisted that First Amendment protections were not to be balanced against government interests. ‘‘Ultimately all the questions in this case’’ he said, ‘‘really boil down to one—whether we as a people will try fearfully and futilely to preserve democracy by adopting totalitarian methods or whether in accordance with our traditions and our Constitution we will have the confidence and courage to be free.’’

In retrospect, the facts in Barenblatt illustrate the way thatHUACand other governmental bodies might disregard civil liberties while engaging in exposure for exposure’s sake. The Supreme Court’s tolerance for such activity, meanwhile, illustrates its own susceptibility to the anticommunist political hysteria of the 1950s.

DAVID RAY PAPKE

References and Further Reading

  • Alfange, Dean, Congressional Investigations and the Fickle Court, University of Cincinnati Law Review 30 (1961): 113–71. 
  • Kutler, Stanley I. The American Inquisition: Justice and Injustice in the Cold War. New York: Hill & Wang, 1982. 
  • Rohr, Marc, Communists and the First Amendment: The Shaping of Freedom of Advocacy in the Cold War Era, San Diego Law Review 28 (1991): 1–116. 

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Watkins v. United States, 354 U.S. 178 (1957) 
  • Yates v. United States, 354 U.S. 298 (1957) 

See also Communism and the Cold War; Vagueness and Overbreadth in Criminal Statutes; Warren Court

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