Barenblatt v. United States

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360 U.S. 109 (1959), argued 18 Nov. 1958, decided 8 June 1959 by vote of 5 to 4; Harlan for the Court, Black, joined by Warren and Douglas, in dissent, Brennan also dissenting. This decision signaled a retreat from Watkins v. United States (1957), which had placed limits on the ability of congressional committees to inquire into political beliefs and associations. Watkins and similar decisions provoked concerted efforts in Congress to curb the Court's authority, which, although unsuccessful, nevertheless persuaded a majority to be more circumspect for a time in protecting the rights of alleged subversives. Barenblatt upheld the conviction for contempt of Congress of a witness who had refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities about his beliefs and his membership in a communist club at the University of Michigan.

The Court dismissed Barenblatt's First Amendment claim through a “balancing of interests.” It defined the government's interest as national self-preservation despite the fact that the only evidence concerning the club was that its members held abstract intellectual discussions. At the same time, it treated the First Amendment interest as essentially irrelevant. The Court also found that the House committee had made clear the pertinency of its questions, contrary to Watkins, where the Court held that pertinency had not been made clear, even though the committee's explanation had been essentially the same in both cases. Although Barenblatt has never been explicitly overruled, the Court has since displayed far less reluctance to reverse convictions of uncooperative witnesses before such committees on constitutional grounds.

Dean Alfange, Jr., “Congressional Investigations and the Fickle Court,” University of Cincinnati Law Review 30 (Spring 1961): 113–171.

Dean Alfange, Jr.

Subjects: Law.

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