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Priests of Our Democracy

Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge

Marjorie Heins
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Priests of Our Democracy
    Book Description:

    In the early 1950s, New York City's teachers and professors became the targets of massive investigations into their political beliefs and associations. Those who refused to cooperate in the questioning were fired. Some had undoubtedly been communists, and the Communist Party-USA certainly made its share of mistakes, but there was never evidence that the accused teachers had abused their trust. Some were among the most brilliant, popular, and dedicated educators in the city. Priests of Our Democracy tells of the teachers and professors who resisted the witch hunt, those who collaborated, and those whose battles led to landmark Supreme Court decisions. It traces the political fortunes of academic freedom beginning in the late 19th century, both on campus and in the courts. Combining political and legal history with wrenching personal stories, the book details how the anti-communist excesses of the 1950s inspired the Supreme Court to recognize the vital role of teachers and professors in American democracy. The crushing of dissent in the 1950s impoverished political discourse in ways that are still being felt, and First Amendment academic freedom, a product of that period, is in peril today. In compelling terms, this book shows why the issue should matter to every American.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-4464-2
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    Harry Keyishian was a junior at Queens College, New York City, in the fall of 1952 when the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee came to town. Investigations of suspected communist or ex-communist teachers were nothing new by this point in America’s Cold War history, but by 1952 they had reached such a pitch of intensity that the Senate subcommittee (commonly known as the SISS) was just one of multiple government and private bodies competing in a crowded field of political investigators. One of the subcommittee’s primary purposes in coming to New York was to persuade the local Board of Higher Education...


    • 1 “Sifting and Winnowing”
      (pp. 17-30)

      Academic freedom was not a coherent concept in America before the late 19th century. But as the nation’s universities evolved from sectarian institutions drilling young gentlemen in Latin and Greek into something approaching the modern ideal of scholars united in a quest for knowledge, conflicts over the role of professors, the powers of trustees, and the very nature of the academic enterprise began.

      The notion of college teaching as a profession and of the university as a venue for scholarly research and critical inquiry was just developing. Guild-like academic associations began to replace the less exclusive “learned societies” that dominated...

    • 2 Radicalism and Reaction in the 1930s
      (pp. 31-50)

      Anti-communist zealotry in the years after World War I weakened but did not crush political and labor radicalism in America. In the early 1930s, with the country suffering a brutal economic depression and with fascism triumphant in Italy and Germany, socialism again began to attract Americans willing to question existing arrangements of power and property. “The reality of soup lines,” one historian writes,

      of Hoovervilles that sprang up on the outskirts of countless cities, of families scavenging for food, of an army of young men and women roaming the country in a desperate search for jobs, and of millions living...

    • 3 Rapp-Coudert
      (pp. 51-66)

      The Teachers Union was quick to respond to the 1940 law creating the Rapp-Coudert Committee and directing it to investigate subversion in the schools. It organized “Friends of the Free Public Schools” and collected more than $150,000 for a campaign against the pending probe. Bella Dodd set up booths at state and county fairs, procured free time on radio programs, and organized “Save Our Schools” community clubs.¹ Ordway Tead, chair of the Board of Higher Education, co-sponsored an April 1940 rally to protest “current attacks on public education.”²

      But although many liberals like Tead opposed the subcommittee, headed by State...


    • 4 The Board of Education and the Feinberg Law
      (pp. 69-86)

      In March 1946, British prime minister Winston Churchill delivered his famous “iron curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri. Churchill warned that an aggressive, totalitarian Soviet Union already controlled eastern Europe and that communist “fifth columns” in Italy, France, and other Western democracies “constitute[d] a growing challenge and peril to Christian civilization.” He urged military preparedness—not appeasement.¹ The post–World War II Cold War had begun.

      In New York City that year, Mayor William O’Dwyer filled a slot on the Board of Education from a list submitted by the ardently anti-communist head of the New York archdiocese, Francis Cardinal Spellman. O’Dwyer’s...

    • 5 Insubordination and “Conduct Unbecoming”
      (pp. 87-102)

      The Supreme Court’s First Amendment decisions in the 1930s and ’ 40s gave encouragement to the Teachers Union in its challenge to the Feinberg Law. The TU’s attorneys filed suit in Brooklyn, with union president Abe Lederman as the lead plaintiff and dozens of others joining, among them parents, parent-teacher associations, a social worker, the head of a religious group, teachers, taxpayers, and other unions.¹ This diversity made a political point, but the trial judge, Murray Hearn, soon ruled that only the taxpayers faced sufficient harm from the law’s enforcement (based on costs the state would incur) to entitle them...

    • 6 The Vinson Court
      (pp. 103-124)

      Fred Vinson, the new chief justice, arrived at the Supreme Court in June 1946, just three weeks after it had decided inUnited States v. Lovettthat a law firing specifically named federal employees was unconstitutional.¹ The facts of theLovettcase were unusual, but the ruling at least suggested that the justices were willing to overturn law passed by Congress if its anti-communist enthusiasms got out of hand.

      The early Vinson Court showed promise of similar liberalism in 1948 when it ruled that the Constitution prohibits courts from enforcing racially restrictive covenants—private agreements not to sell property to...


    • 7 The McCarran Committee and the City Colleges
      (pp. 127-143)

      Harry Gideonse saw “old problems resurfacing” at Brooklyn College after World War II.¹ As in the late 1930s, Gideonse thought “a determined ideological minority” was using college facilities for nefarious ends. In the spring of 1949, the student Karl Marx Society invited Henry Winston, the Communist Party’s organizational secretary, to speak. Winston was one of the 11 Party leaders then on trial for conspiring to advocate the overthrow of the government. Just as Gideonse’s administration had, ten years before, barred CP general secretary Earl Browder from campus, so now it told the Karl Marx Society that even an off-campus meeting...

    • 8 “The Laughing-Stock of Europe”
      (pp. 144-161)

      Vera Shlakman testified before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee on a Monday in late September 1952. The next day, as her colleague Oscar Shaftel recalled, “the students called a protest meeting. I spoke there and got a subpoena on Thursday.” There was an “original euphoria; you carried the flag and people rallied round.” Shaftel was “ordered to show up at the judicial building downtown on Columbus Day,” but, he said, “they ran out of time before I had to testify. So I continued teaching into the next semester with this ax hanging over my head.”¹

      Shaftel had been a rebel...

    • 9 The Moral Dilemma: Naming Names
      (pp. 162-174)

      Harry Slochower justified his refusal to answer the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee’s questions in 1952 by saying that he did not want to become an informer. If this was not exactly consistent with what his boss, Harry Gideonse, said Slochower told him—that he was afraid of perjury charges—it is understandable that Slochower would publicly choose the more highminded rationale. By 1952, the moral dilemma of forced informing was causing anguish and bitterness nationwide. It had become the defining ritual of anti-communist investigations.

      The dilemma was memorably dramatized by the actor Larry Parks, questioned by HUAC in 1951. Park,...


    • 10 Red Monday and Beyond
      (pp. 177-191)

      The Supreme Court took cautious steps in the mid-1950s toward dismantling loyalty programs. In 1955, it overturned the federal Loyalty Review Board’s blacklisting of a Yale professor of medicine who had been a consultant to the Public Health Service, but it ruled on technical grounds and avoided the constitutional question of whether loyalty boards could use evidence from secret informants, evidence that the employee could not see and therefore try to discredit or rebut. The justices had left that question hanging since their deadlock over Dorothy Bailey’s firing from her federal job four years before.¹ Justice William O. Douglas wanted...

    • 11 The Road to Keyishian
      (pp. 192-208)

      In Buffalo, New York, attorney Richard Lipsitz was closely watching theBaggett v. Bullittcase. A few professors at the Buffalo branch of the State University of New York (SUNY) had contacted him in January 1964 after learning that all faculty must sign the “Feinberg certificate,” a disclaimer of CP affiliation that the SUNY Board of Trustees had made a condition of employment in 1956. This was four years after the Supreme Court had upheld the Feinberg Law inAdler v. Board of Educationand three years after the legislature had extended the law to universities.¹

      The Feinberg certificate required...

    • 12 “A Pall of Orthodoxy over the Classroom”
      (pp. 209-222)

      The Supreme Court had one more loyalty case on its docket before it decidedKeyishian. Since Arizona’s beginnings as a territory, it had a typical affirmative oath for all public employees—to swear to support the U.S. and state constitutions, to “bear true faith and allegiance” to them, and to “defend them against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Then in 1961, the state legislature enacted an imaginative variation on the anti-subversive test oath: a “Communist Control Act” that created criminal penalties for perjury for anyone who took the affirmative oath and who “Knowingly and willfully” became or remained a member...


    • 13 “A Generation Stopped in Its Tracks”
      (pp. 225-238)

      Keyishian v. Board of Regentsinspired the New York City teachers who had been fired in the 1950s to begin what turned out to be a laborious process of seeking compensation for actions now recognized as not only politically but legally unjust. In addition, the year afterKeyishian, the Supreme Court struck down city charter section 903 (now renumbered), which had prohibited employees from invoking the Fifth Amendment when called to testify about city business.¹ Victor Rabinowitz and other lawyers who had been representing beleaguered teachers since the late 1940s now had an argument as well for compensating those whose...

    • 14 Academic Freedom after Keyishian
      (pp. 239-251)

      The Supreme Court’s 1967 decision inKeyishian v. Board of Regentswas fatal to loyalty programs across the nation. William Brennan, so often a master of compromise, did not, in this case, craft a middle-ground standard that would allow some anti-subversive programs to continue or encourage the passage of new, arguably narrower laws. There were no linguistic acrobatics justifying loyalty schemes if only they were more limited, provided greater due process, or eschewed test oaths.

      Brennan’s opinion nonetheless left many questions about the scope of academic freedom unanswered.Keyishianbecame a ubiquitous source of authority for court decisions condemning censorship...

    • 15 September 11 and Beyond
      (pp. 252-268)

      At the turn of the 21st century, academic freedom was in a murky state. The Supreme Court had said that as a matter of First Amendment right, it attached to the university as an institution as well as to individual professors, but did not say how to resolve conflicts between the two. Some commentators had argued that academic freedom is fundamentally about institutional autonomy, on the theory that a community of scholars governs the institution in the first place. Another argument was that academic freedom only applies to scholarship and teaching, not to “extramural” political speech, which enjoys the same...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 269-284)

    The story of academic freedom in the United States is intimately tied to the story of the American left. It was as a result of the heresy hunts of the 1950s that the Supreme Court enshrined academic freedom as a special concern of the First Amendment. And although that era of repression has been largely repudiated, its effects persist. We remain a society in which the range of acceptable views is remarkably narrow and where emotional appeals often overwhelm coherent discussion of political issues.

    The problem, of course, is not entirely due to political repression. Despite energy and idealism, the...

    (pp. 285-286)
  11. NOTES
    (pp. 287-326)
    (pp. 327-342)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 343-362)
    (pp. 363-363)