At issue in Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957) was whether a state investigation of alleged subversive activities deprived a speaker at a university of due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the New Hampshire attorney general’s investigation did violate the speaker’s constitutional rights. In light of the impact that Sweezy played in the larger realm of litigation on the constitutionality of loyalty oaths, even though it did not deal with such oaths per se, this entry reviews its history and judicial analyses in detail.
In 1951, during a time of anticommunist fears, political blacklisting, and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigations into “un-American activities,” the legislature of the State of New Hampshire passed the Subversive Activities Act. Provisions in the act defined a subversive organization as one that supported activities intended to change the constitutional form of government by force or violence. The act defined a subversive person as one who aided in the commission of acts intended to alter the constitutional form of government by force or violence. The act further declared subversive organizations to be unlawful and ordered them dissolved. Under the terms of the act, subversive persons were made ineligible for state employment. Teachers and others employed by an educational institution were subject to the law’s provisions. All state employees and candidates for elective offices were required to sign statements that they were not subversive persons. In 1953, the legislature adopted a joint resolution charging the attorney general with responsibility for investigating subversive activities, identifying subversive persons in the state, and prosecuting those who were deemed to have violated the law.
Facts of the Case
Paul Sweezy was an avowed classical Marxist and socialist, an active member of the Progressive Party, and coeditor of an article condemning the United States’ use of violence to preserve capitalistic social orders. Sweezy had delivered guest lectures to students in a humanities course at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) on at least three occasions.
Based on Sweezy’s political associations and expression, New Hampshire Attorney General Louis Wyman subpoenaed him to testify on two occasions, January 5 and June 3, 1954. Wyman’s questions at the January 5 hearing focused on Sweezy’s lectures at UNH and his leadership role in Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential campaign on the Progressive Party ticket. While stating emphatically that Wyman’s interrogation was unjustified and unconstitutional, Sweezy answered most of the questions honestly and directly, stating that he had never been a member of the Communist Party, had never knowingly associated with communists in the state, and did not advocate violent overthrow of the government. Sweezy acknowledged that he was a moderate socialist who believed in peaceful social and political change and that he once belonged to several organizations that were being monitored by the U.S. attorney general and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Invoking his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association, Sweezy declined to answer specific questions about Progressive Party membership, activities of individuals who had worked in the Wallace campaign, the content of his UNH lectures, and whether he believed communism to be superior to capitalism.
Attorney General Wyman again summoned Sweezy to testify on June 3, at which time he was questioned about his relationships with known communists and about his article deploring the United States’ use of violence to further its capitalistic agenda. Sweezy again acknowledged that he was a Marxist and socialist, and he confirmed that his article reflected his opinion about American imperialism. Once again, Sweezy refused to answer questions about the Progressive Party and his UNH lectures, maintaining that they were not pertinent to the matter under inquiry and that they infringed his rights to free speech and association.
Following the two hearings, the attorney general petitioned a state trial court to compel Sweezy to answer all questions. When the court agreed and called Sweezy as a witness, he again refused to answer questions that he believed were not germane to the issue. The court thus held him in contempt and ordered him jailed until the contempt charge was purged. Sweezy appealed to the Supreme Court of New Hampshire, which conceded that the attorney general’s investigation violated Sweezy’s constitutional rights to political association and speech. The court held that that the attorney general reasonably believed Sweezy to be a subversive who was advocating violent overthrow of the government. It affirmed the earlier contempt order, holding that the state’s interest outweighed his constitutional rights to speech, association, and due process of law.
The Supreme Court’s Ruling
In a plurality judgment (meaning that five Justices were unable to agree on a rationale that would render their judgment binding precedent), the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in favor of the plaintiff. The plurality, led by Chief Justice Burger and joined by Justices Black, Douglas, and Brennan, cited the lower court’s acknowledgment that the plaintiff’s rights had been violated. The Court found that there unquestionably was an invasion of petitioner’s academic freedom and First Amendment rights, areas in which it explained that the government should be extremely reluctant to intrude. To the Court, a state’s legitimate concern about subversive individuals and their activities does not trump the Bill of Rights. To this end, the Court observed that because the American form of government is built on the notion that all citizens have the right to engage in political expression and association, mere unorthodoxy or dissent from the prevailing perspectives should not be condemned. In fact, the plurality was of the view that the absence of such voices would have been a symptom of grave illness in American society. In summarizing its analysis, the Court emphasized the vital role of academic freedom in higher education, highlighting the idea that because scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust, faculty members and students must always remain free to inquire, to study, and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding.
In his concurring opinion, Justice Frankfurter, joined by Justice Harlan, identified the nowfamous four freedoms necessary to sustain that climate of discovery and free inquiry on university campuses. According to Frankfurter, universities are designed to provide an atmosphere that is conducive to speculation, experiment, and creation and in which four essential freedoms prevail. He identified these freedoms as the right of universities to determine for themselves on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study. Justice Whittaker did not participate in the case.
Justice Clark, in a dissent that was joined by Justice Burton, essentially argued that the Court overstepped its boundaries in denying the state’s legislature and its officials the authority to investigate subversive activities within its boundaries.
In sum, Sweezy stands out because although it did not involve a loyalty oath, per se, the Supreme Court struck down the speaker’s contempt conviction because the questions he had been asked were an invasion of his rights to academic freedom and political expression, topics that the Court would return to explore in later cases.
Robert C. Cloud
See also Keyishian v. Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York; Political Activities and Speech of Faculty Members; U.S. Supreme Court Cases in Higher Education
Elfbrandt v. Russell, 384 U.S. 11 (1966).
Euben, D. R. (2001). Legal watch: Academic freedom, loyalty oaths, and diversity in academe. Retrieved April 27, 2009, from http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2001/MJ/Cols/lw.htm
Hyman, H. M. (1959). To try men’s souls: Loyalty oaths in American history. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Keyishian v. Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York, 385 U.S. 589 (1967).
Wieman v. Updegraff, 344 U.S. 183 (1952).
Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234 (1957).