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June 8, 1959

A 5-4 decision in the Supreme Court upheld the contempt of Congress conviction of Lloyd Barenblatt, former member of the Vassar psychology department. Indicted in November, 1954, for refusing to answer five questions put to him the House Un-American Activities Committee about his associations when a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Barenblatt was fined $250 and given a six-month jail term.

Writing for the majority, Justice John Harlan said that rigorous respect for academic freedom did not make an educational institution “a Constitutional sanctuary from inquiry into matters that may otherwise be within the Constitutional legislative domain merely for the reason that inquiry is made of someone within its walls.” For three minority justices, Justice Hugo Black said the majority decision made it seem as if the Firs Amendment read: “Congress shall pass no law abridging freedom of speech, press, assembly and petition unless Congress and the Supreme Court reach the joint conclusion that on balance the interests of the Government in stifling those freedoms is greater than the interest of the people in having them exercised.” Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., who joined only one point of Justice Black’s opinion, submitted a brief minority opinion of his own.

The Years