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Priests of Our Democracy

The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge

Marjorie Heins

Publication Year: 2013

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.

Published by: NYU Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 4-9


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pp. ix-x

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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...

Part I: Prelude to the Deluge

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pp. 15-66

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1. “Sifting and Winnowing”

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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...

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2. Radicalism and Reaction in the 1930s

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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...

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3. Rapp-Coudert

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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...

Part II: Teachers and Free Speech

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pp. 67-123

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4. The Board of Education and the Feinberg Law

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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...

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5. Insubordination and “Conduct Unbecoming”

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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...

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6. The Vinson Court

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pp. 103-123

Fred Vinson, the new chief justice, arrived at the Supreme Court in June 1946, just three weeks after it had decided in United States v. Lovett that a law firing specifically named federal employees was unconstitutional.1 The facts of the Lovett case were unusual, but the ruling at least suggested that the justices were willing...

Part III: The Purge Comes to Higher Education

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pp. 125-174

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7. The McCarran Committee and the City Colleges

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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...

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8. “The Laughing-Stock of Europe”

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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...

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9. The Moral Dilemma: Naming Names

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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...

Part IV: The Supreme Court and Academic Freedom

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pp. 175-187

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10. Red Monday and Beyond

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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...

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11. The Road to Keyishian

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pp. 192-208

In Buffalo, New York, attorney Richard Lipsitz was closely watching the Baggett v. Bullitt case. 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...

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12. “A Pall of Orthodoxy over the Classroom”

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pp. 209-222

The Supreme Court had one more loyalty case on its docket before it decided Keyishian. 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...

Part V: Politics, Repression, and the Future of Academic Freedom

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pp. 223-235

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13. “A Generation Stopped in Its Tracks”

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pp. 225-238

Keyishian v. Board of Regents inspired 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 after Keyishian, the Supreme Court struck down city charter...

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14. Academic Freedom after Keyishian

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pp. 239-251

The Supreme Court’s 1967 decision in Keyishian v. Board of Regents was 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...

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15. September 11 and Beyond

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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...

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pp. 269-283

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...

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pp. 285-286

Thanks to the Frederic Ewen Academic Freedom Center at New York University for awarding me a fellowship in 2011 to complete the research and writing for this book. Its directors, Michael Nash and Marilyn Young, were wonderfully supportive scholars, brimming with knowledge and perspective about radical history...


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pp. 287-326


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pp. 327-341


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pp. 343-361

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About the Author

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pp. 363-374

Marjorie Heins is a civil liberties lawyer, writer, and teacher and the founding director of the Free Expression Policy Project. From 1991 to 1998, she directed the American Civil Liberties Union’s Arts Censorship Project. More recently, she was a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and at the Frederic Ewen...

E-ISBN-13: 9780814744642
E-ISBN-10: 0814790518
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814790519
Print-ISBN-10: 0814790518

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2013