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Barenblatt v. United States, 360 U.S. 109; 79 S. Ct. 1081; 3 L. Ed. 2d 1114 (1959)

Barenblatt v. United States, 360 U.S. 109; 79 S. Ct. 1081; 3 L. Ed. 2d 1114 (1959)

Facts—Barenblatt, a one-time college professor, was called as a witness before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which was investigating communist infiltration in education. After refusing on First Amendment grounds to testify to his own or anyone else’s possible associations with the Communist Party, Barenblatt was convicted of contempt in a U.S. District Court, a conviction later reaffirmed, after first being vacated, by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Issue—Was Barenblatt obligated to respond to committee questions about possible connections to the Communist Party?


ReasonsJ. Harlan (5–4). The power of Congress to investigate is broad but not unlimited. In Watkins v. United States, the Court questioned the vagueness of Rule XI that provided authorization for committee investigations into alleged un-American activities, but the Court did not invalidate all committee author- ity. Its authority covers investigations into education. Barenblatt questioned the pertinency of the committee’s questions, but he did not raise this claim, except obliquely, at his hearing, and he refused to testify to matters, including his association with the Communist Party, that were clearly pertinent. Baren- blatt resisted testifying on the basis that such testimony interfered with his First Amendment rights of speech and association. However, the committee has wide legislative authority to investigate threats to national security, and the Court recognized that the Communist Party differs from others in that it is con- trolled from abroad and professes revolutionary ideology. Barenblatt claimed that the committee was conducting its investigation for the purpose of “expo- sure,” but it is not up to the Court to question the motives of Congress.

J. Black’s dissent argued that the investigation violated rights to speech and association, that the committee’s search for “un-American activities” was vague, and that rights of freedom of speech and association should not be balanced away. The Constitution protects “the right to err politically,” and individuals should not be penalized for what they believe and for associating with individuals of their choice. The primary purpose of the committee was the impermissible one of subjecting Barenblatt to “humiliation and public shame.” J. Brennan’s dissent classified the committee’s purpose of “exposure purely for the sake of exposure.”

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