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Keyishian v. Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York

Supreme Court Upholds Principle Of Academic Freedom

By the time Keyishian's case went to trial, much of the paranoid hysteria about communist infiltration associated with the Cold War and Senator Joseph McCarthy's campaign to purge leftists from public life had abated. Still, the rules of the State University of New York remained on the books, and the State Board of Regents was determined to enforce them. Keyishian and others saw the rules as an abridgement of his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association. More ominously, he argued, they threatened academic freedom.

Five of the nine justices of the Supreme Court agreed with him. Writing for the majority, Justice Brennan stressed:

Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom . . . The classroom is peculiarly the "marketplace of ideas."

But the Court chose reasons other than strictly First Amendment concerns for overturning the New York laws. As Justice Brennan noted, regulations which affect the First Amendment must be drafted with great care and specificity. In the case of the New York laws at issue, the wording was vague and ambiguous and had resulted in a maze of regulation and administrative machinery that made it difficult for those affected to know when or how--or even if--they were in compliance. The rules therefore could result in a distinct "chilling effect" on those who had to guess which conduct or utterance might cost them their jobs. An instructor might be violating the law simply by carrying a copy of the Communist Manifesto on the street, or by discussing in class the principles of certain abstract political doctrines. The laws carried no requirement that the teacher have a specific intent to overthrow the government or to further the goals of the prohibited organizations; mere membership was enough to cost him or her a job.

The statutes at issue were "void for vagueness," a judicial doctrine which holds that laws are unconstitutional when they are vague as to what persons fall within their scope or what conduct is forbidden. The New York rules, said Justice Brennan, violate not only First Amendment freedoms, but the guarantee of procedural due process. After Keyishian, New York State employees were no longer required to surrender their constitutional rights in order to obtain or hang on to their jobs.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Keyishian v. Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York - Significance, Supreme Court Upholds Principle Of Academic Freedom