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  • Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge by Marjorie Heins
  • Richard Flacks
Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge. Marjorie Heins. 2013. New York: New York University Press. 385pp. Hardback ISBN: 978–0-81479051–9 ($35.00).

Heins is a civil liberties lawyer and her particular aim in Priests of Our Democracy is to examine the Supreme Court’s role in defining a constitutional foundation for academic freedom, especially during the McCarthy years. She shows that the Supreme Court, in the 1960s, reversed decades of precedent, to assert that academic freedom is essential for the maintenance of democracy and that punishment of professors for political advocacy undermined the capacity of academics to engage in free scholarly inquiry,

The familiar history of academic freedom begins in the late 19th century, when well-known professors were dismissed from prominent universities because they advocated rights of labor and other socialistic ideas. Such cases provided impetus for the formation of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in order to advocate that academic freedom was a crucial, defining feature of the university. The AAUP declared that duly appointed professors must have freedom to conduct research—to write and to teach without interference from non-academics (whether they be trustees, public officials, or other citizens). If there was to be an academic profession, then those certified as members of the profession were the ones responsible for setting the standards for and evaluating fellow members’ scholarly and educational activities.

AAUP, especially during World War I, typically accepted limits on professors’ public advocacy of unpopular causes, stressing that professors had an obligation to be responsible in their extramural utterances—“to refrain from intemperate or sensational modes of expression” (p. 24). Academic freedom, AAUP claimed, was the right of professors to create knowledge and employ reason in their scholarly pursuits, not to merely express themselves or advance their own beliefs. In short, whether academic freedom extended to extramural political expression was, even for the organized professoriate, a matter of contention.

In the same period, the Supreme Court majority tended to the view that the First Amendment did not protect employees from being fired for their speech. Oliver Wendell Holmes, among other justices, distinguished between the right to speak and the privilege of a job. It is the employer’s right to set the conditions of employment, and therefore firing an employee for his or her political acts did not infringe on First Amendment rights. The court for decades applied that reasoning to universities as well as other institutions. [End Page 277]

The question of faculty members’ political affiliation and activism was revived in the 1930s as economic conditions and threats of war and fascism inspired social movements in which some students and faculty were passionately engaged. Teacher unionism, in both K–12 and higher education, grew. Heins informs us that it was in the public schools and colleges of New York City that faculty activism was most evident, and strong efforts to quell it gathered force. By the late 1930s, the FBI was actively penetrating the United States Communist movement. Congress passed laws aimed at criminalizing the party and its followers, and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began its inquisitorial career. A New York state legislative committee—the Rapp- Coudert committee—was established on the HUAC model, and it specifically targeted Communism in the New York public schools and colleges for investigation. The Board of Higher Education, after initial resistance, cooperated with this process on the grounds that Communist Party membership inherently was disqualifying for college teaching. In the months just before the Second World War, dozens of New York college teachers and staff were purged. In New York, what became ‘McCarthyism’ began before World War II. The war time USUSSR alliance put a stop to the NY anti-Communist purge, but it resumed with much greater intensity as the Cold War got underway.

Heins provides a detailed account of how the post-war school purges were instituted, culminating in passage of the Feinberg Law in 1949. That law, in effect, banned members of the Communist Party from teaching...


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