• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court upheld a conviction for contempt of Congress, ruling that the public’s interest in opposing communist infiltration outweighed a person’s limited First Amendment right to refuse to answer questions.

When Lloyd Barenblatt, a college professor, appeared before the House Un-American Activities CommitteeHouse Un-American Activities Committee, he refused to answer questions that dealt with his political beliefs and associations. Rather than relying on the Fifth Amendment, he alleged that the questions infringed on his right to free expression under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court had appeared to give some support to such a claim in Watkins v. United States[case]Watkins v. United States[Watkins v. United States] (1957). Barenblatt was convicted of contempt of Congress.Congressional power of investigation;Barenblatt v. United States[Barenblatt v. United States]Assembly and association, freedom of;Barenblatt v. United States[Barenblatt v. United States]

Speaking for a 5-4 majority, Justice John M. Harlan IIHarlan, John M., II;Barenblatt v. United States[Barenblatt v. United States] used a balancing of interests approach. Although Harlan acknowledged that the First AmendmentFirst Amendment balancing in some circumstances protects a person “from being compelled to disclose his associational relationships,” he concluded that Barenblatt’s particular claim was outweighed by the public’s interest in exposing communist subversion. In contrast to the situation in Watkins, Harlan found that the subcommittee had explained the relevance of the questions and had not attempted to pillory witnesses. The Barenblatt decision was never overruled. In Eastland v. United States Servicemen’s Club[case]Eastland v. United States Servicemen’s Club[Eastland v. United States Servicemen’s Club] (1975), the Court strengthened the prerogatives of congressional committees by expansively reading the speech or debate clause. When dealing with state investigations, on the other hand, the Court has tended to demonstrate greater concern for protecting First Amendment values.

Assembly and association, freedom of

Cold War

Congressional power of investigation

Contempt power of Congress

First Amendment balancing

Watkins v. United States

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