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.
The U.S. Supreme Court in these years rejected nearly every First Amendment challenge to the investigations and firings. One of its major decisions, rejecting the claim that academic freedom protects teachers from political inquisitions, came from New York City, where political, cultural, and ethnic tensions played out with particular ferocity. Gradually, as the public recoiled against the excesses of McCarthyism, and as the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren began to get its bearings, the justices responded with decisions at first chipping away at loyalty investigations, and eventually, in 1967, announcing that academic freedom is “a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.”
That case, too, arose in New York. Five professors at the Buffalo campus of the state university risked their jobs by refusing to sign an anti-communist oath; then they filed suit to challenge the state’s entire convoluted apparatus of loyalty investigations. Their victory at the Supreme Court brought an end to an ugly era of political repression in schools and colleges, and eventually throughout the nation.
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.
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