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Barenblatt v. United States

Significance

Barenblatt marked a retreat from the Court's prior ruling that freedom of speech and association limited Congress' ability to inquire into political beliefs and affiliations.

In 1954, when he was called to testify before a subcommittee of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Lloyd Barenblatt had recently left his job as a psychology professor at Vassar College. The committee, which had been organized in the midst of the Cold War to investigate Communist infiltration of various elements of American society, was then engaged in an inquiry into the field of education, and it was interested in Barenblatt's membership in a Communist club at the University of Michigan, where he had been a graduate student from 1947 to 1950. Although the only evidence the subcommittee had about the club indicated that it was merely a forum for intellectual debates about political issues, HUAC considered its inquiry to be vital to national security. When Barenblatt, citing his Fifth Amendment right not be forced to incriminate himself, refused to answer the subcommittee's questions about his club activities and associations at the University of Michigan, he was convicted of contempt of Congress in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. After his conviction was upheld in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Barenblatt petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari, or review, of the decision against him.

Just two years earlier, in Watkins v. United States (1957), the Supreme Court had placed limits on Congress's authority to question citizens about their political beliefs and associations. Congress and its committees, the Court said, were obliged to limit their inquiries to those that were pertinent to legislative functions. In that case, the subject of the inquiry had been convicted of contempt of Congress because he refused to answer HUAC's questions about others who might have had Community affiliations--to "name names," as the procedure was known at the time. Such questions, the Court found, were unrelated to the committee's legitimate function, and John T. Watkins's conviction was overturned.

Congress responded to Watkins with attempts to counteract the Court's own authority, and a majority of the justices apparently saw fit to retreat from the hard line they had previously taken toward HUAC. This time, when almost the same questions were asked of Lloyd Barenblatt as had been asked of John Watkins, five of the nine justices agreed that these questions were pertinent to the subcommittee's authorization to investigate Communist influences in education.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Barenblatt v. United States - Significance, Government Interest In Self-preservation Found To Outweigh First Amendment Concerns, The Hollywood Ten