Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti- Communist Purge
by Marjorie Heins
New York University Press, 2013, 384 pages, $35 hardback.
PRIESTS OF OUR Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti- Communist Purge is a smart, well-crafted insightful book by an especially qualified author. Marjorie Heins is an unrepentant six- ties radical out of SDS who went on to get a Harvard Law School degree and became a litigator, a law professor, an historian and a constitutional scholar.
Academic freedom was not gained along with the Bill of Rights just after the American Revolution, as most people think. It was not initially protected by the First Amendment, took a beating in the radical 1930s and during the Cold War, made some big gains in the sixties under the Warren Supreme Court, but still remains a fragile freedom in the wake of 9/11.
The kernel of Heins’ book tells the story of the investigations and purges of Communist Party members and sympathiz- ers who taught in the public high schools and colleges in New York City in the thir- ties and again in the ’50s and ’60s, and the Supreme Court decisions that resulted. It weaves together beautifully told personal stories with legal and political history. But it starts in the 1890s at the University of Wisconsin where I went to college and law school, and finishes with a chapter on post 9/11 developments.
I grew up in the fifties in Fox Point, Wisconsin, a little Republican village equi- distant from Joe McCarthy’s home town Appleton, and Madison where the University of Wisconsin was founded. Madison was an island of freedom in the ’50s and ’60s com- pared to Fox Point, or for that matter New York City.
In 1957 when McCarthyism had spread fear across the nation, my high school history teacher invited me and my friend Sue over to the room he rented in a local home. He made us promise not to tell anybody what he was about to show us. Then he reached under his bed and pulled out …. a Pete Seeger album.
Meanwhile at that time the headquarters of the “Joe Must Go” campaign was located at the University of Wisconsin, even as some 380 New York City teachers had been fired from their positions.
Origins of a Principle
University of Wisconsin Professor Richard Ely, a Christian socialist and social reformer, won in 1894 the first great victory for academic freedom over corporate influ- enced politicians who tried to silence him, falsely accusing him of pressuring a local printer to use union labor exclusively.
University President Benjamin Andrews came to Ely’s defense, telling the Board of Regents that firing Ely would be “a great blow at freedom of university teaching in general and at the development of political economy in particular.” The Regents issued a report which ended in words so inspiring that a plaque quoting them is displayed on the main liberal arts building at the top of the highest hill on campus, proclaiming:
“Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe that the great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing (more…)