Wilkinson v. United States

365 U.S. 399
Wilkinson v. United States
Argued: November 17, 1960
Decided: February 27, 1961


See 365 U.S. 890, 81 S.Ct. 1024.
Mr. Rowland Watts, Baltimore, Md., for petitioner.
Mr. Kevin T. Maroney, Washington, D.C., for respondent.
Mr. Justice STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

Dissenting Opinion

Mr. Justice BLACK, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE and Mr. Justice DOUGLAS concur, dissenting.

In July 1958 the House Un-American Activities Committee announced its intention to conduct a series of hearings in Atlanta, Georgia, ostensibly to obtain information in aid of the legislative function of the House of Representatives. [1] Petitioner, a long-time opponent of the Committee, [2] decided to go to Atlanta for the purpose of lending his support to those who were fighting against the hearings. He arrived in Atlanta and registered in a hotel there on July 23 as a representative of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, a New York organization which was working for the abolition of the Un-American Activities Committee. Within an hour of his registration, petitioner was served with a subpoena requiring his appearance before the Committee. When he appeared in response to this subpoena, petitioner was told that he had been subpoenaed because the Committee was informed that ‘you were sent to this area by the Communist Party for the purpose of developing a hostile sentiment to this committee and to its work for the purpose of undertaking to bring pressure upon the United States Congress to preclude these particular hearings.’ [3] A number of questions were then put to petitioner, all of which related to his personal beliefs and associations, but petitioner refused to answer any of these questions on the ground that they violated his rights under the First Amendment. For this, he was convicted under 2 U.S.C. § 192, 2 U.S.C.A. § 192 and sentenced to jail for 12 months. guishable.’ Unlike the majority, however, I regard this recognition of the unlimited sweep of the decision in the Barenblatt case a compelling reason, not to reaffirm that case, but to overrule it.

In my view, the majority by its decision today places the stamp of constitutional approval upon a practice as clearly inconsistent with the Constitution, and indeed with every ideal of individual freedom for which this country has so long stood, as any that has ever come before this Court. For, like Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, I think it clear that this case involves nothing more nor less than an attempt by the Un-American Activities Committee to use the contempt power of the House of Representatives as a weapon against those who dare to criticize it. The majority does not and, in reason, could not deny this for the conclusion is all but inescapable for anyone who will take the time to read the record. [5] They say instead that it makes no difference whether the Committee was harassing petitioner solely by reason of his opposition to it or not because ‘it is not for us to speculate as to the motivations that may have prompted the decision of individual members of the subcommittee to summon the petitioner.’ The clear thrust of this sweeping abdication of judicial power is that the Committee may continue to harass its opponents with absolute impunity so long as the ‘protections’ of Barenblatt are observed. Since this is to be the rule under which the Committee will be permitted to operate, I think it necessary in the interest of fairness to those who may in the future wish to exercise their constitutional right to criticize the Committee that the true nature of those ‘protections’ be clearly set forth.

The first such ‘protection’ relates to the question of whom the Committee may call before it. Is there any limitation upon the power of the Committee to subpoena and compel testimony from anyone who attacks it? On this point, the majority, relying upon the fact that at a previous hearing the Committee was told by a paid informant that petitioner was a Communist and upon statements by the Committee’s counsel to the effect that the Committee had information that petitioner had been sent to Atlanta by the Communist Party, says simply: ‘It is to be emphasized that the petitioner was not summoned to appear as the result of an indiscriminate dragnet procedure, lacking in probable cause for belief that he possessed information which might be helpful to the subcommittee.’ Significantly, the majority does not say just how much its ’emphasis’ on this point is worth, if anything. Thus, for all that appears in the majority opinion, there is no assurance that the Committee will be required to produce any information at all as a prerequisite to the exercise of its subpoena and contempt powers. Assuming for the sake of argument, however, that such a requirement will be imposed, it then becomes relevant to inquire as to just how much this requirement will mean in terms of genuine protection for those who in good faith wish to criticize the Committee.

That inquiry is, to my mind, satisfactorily settled by a look at the facts of this case. So far as appears from this record, the only information the Committee had with regard to petitioner was the testimony of an informant at a previous Committee hearing. The only evidence to the effect that petitioner was in fact a member of the Communist Party that emerges from that testimony is a flat conclusory statement by the informant that it was so. [6] No testimony as to particular happenings upon which such a conclusion could rationally be based was given at that hearing. When this fact is considered in conjunction with the fact that petitioner was not accorded the opportunity to cross-examine the informant [7] or the protection of the statute permitting inspection of statements given to the F.B.I. by informants, [8] it seems obvious to me that such testimony is almost totally worthless for the purpose of establishing probable cause. For all we know, the informant may have had no basis at all for her conclusion and, indeed, the possibility of perjury cannot, in view of its frequent recurrence in these sorts of cases, [9] be entirely discounted. Thus, in my view, the ‘protection’ afforded by a requirement of some sort of probable cause, even if imposed, is almost totally worthless. In the atmosphere existing in this country today, the charge that someone is a Communist is so common that hardly anyone active in public life escapes it. Every member of this Court has, on one occasion or another, been so designated. And a vast majority of the members of the other two branches of Government have fared no better. If the mere fact that someone has been called a Communist is to be permitted to satisfy a requirement of probable cause, I think it plain that such a requirement is wholly without value. To impose it would only give apparent respectability to a practice which is inherently in conflict with our concepts of justice and due process.

The other such ‘protection’ afforded to critics of the Un-American Activities Committee under these decisions is included in the majority’s so-called balancing test. Under that test, we are told, this Court will permit only those abridgments of personal beliefs and associations by Committee inquiry that the Court believes so important in terms of the need of the Committee for information that such need outweighs the First Amendment rights of the witness and the public. [10] For my part, I need look no further than this very case to see how little protection this high-sounding slogan really affords. For in this case the majority is holding that the interest of the Committee in the information sought outweighs that of the witness and the public in free discussion while, at the same time, it disclaims any power to determine whether the Committee is in fact interested in the information at all. The truth of the matter is that the balancing test, at least as applied to date, means that the Committee may engage in any inquiry a majority of this Court happens to think could possibly be for a legitimate purpose whether that ‘purpose’ be the true reason for the inquiry or not. And under the tests of legitimacy that are used in this area, any first-year law school student worth his salt could construct a rationalization to justify almost any question put to any witness at any time.

Thus, in my view, the conclusion is inescapable that the only real limitation upon the Committee’s power to harass its opponents is the Committee’s own self-restraint, a characteristic which probably has not been predominant in the Committee’s work over the past few years. The result of all this is that from now on anyone who takes a public position contrary to that being urged by the House Un-American Activities Comittee should realize that he runs the risk of being subpoenaed to appear at a hearing in some far off place, of being questioned with regard to every minute detail of his past life, of being asked to repeat all the gossip he may have heard about any of his friends and acquaintances, of being accused by the Committee of membership in the Communist Party, of being held up to the public as a subversive and a traitor, of being jailed for contempt if he refuses to cooperate with the Committee in its probe of his mind and associations, and of being branded by his neighbors, employer and erstwhile friends as a menace to society regardless of the outcome of that hearing. With such a powerful weapon in its hands, it seems quite likely that the Committee will weather all criticism, even though justifiable, that may be directed toward it. For there are not many people in our society who will have the courage to speak out against such a formidable opponent. But cf. Uphaus v. Wyman, 364 U.S. 388, 81 S.Ct. 153, 5 L.Ed.2d 148. If the present trend continues, this already small number will necessarily dwindle as their ranks are thinned by the jails. Government by consent will disappear to be replaced by government by intimidation because some people are afraid that this country cannot survive unless Congress has the power to set aside the freedoms of the First Amendment at will.

I can only reiterate my firm conviction that these people are tragically wrong. This country was not built by men who were afraid and it cannot be preserved by such men. [11] Our Constitution, in unequivocal terms, gives the right to each of us to say what we think without fear of the power of the Government. That principle has served us so well for so long that I cannot believe it necessary to allow any governmental group to reject it in order to preserve its own existence. Least of all do I believe that such a privilege should be accorded the House Un-American Activities Committee. For I believe that true Americanism is to be protected, not by committees that persecute unorthodox minorities, but by strict adherence to basic principles of freedom that are responsible for this Nation’s greatness. Those principles are embodied for all who care to see in our Bill of Rights. They were put there for the specific purpose of preventing just the sort of governmental suppression of criticism that the majority upholds here. Their ineffectiveness to that end stems, not from any lack of precision in the statement of the principles, but from the refusal of the majority to apply those principles as precisely stated. For the principles of the First Amendment are stated in precise and mandatory terms and unless they are applied in those terms, the freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition will have no effective protection. Where these freedoms are left to depend upon a balance to be struck by this Court in each particular case, liberty cannot survive. For under such a rule, there are no constitutional rights that cannot be ‘balanced’ away.


^1  In my dissenting opinion in Barenblatt v. United States, 360 U.S. 109, 153-166, 79 S.Ct. 1081, 1107-1113, 3 L.Ed.2d 1115, I set out the evidence from the Committee’s own reports which indicates the Committee’s real purpose in conducting this kind of hearing.

^2  During the past several years, the petitioner appears to have been associated with at least three different organizations that had as their primary aim the abolition of the Un-American Activities Committee. In addition to his association with the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, which is shown by this record, petitioner seems to have been associated with similar organizations in Los Angeles and Chicago. At least he was accused of such associations when he was called before a previous hearing of the Committee in 1956. See Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, 84th Cong., 2d Sess., at Los Angeles, California, December 5-8, 1956, entitled ‘Communist Political Subversion, Part I,’ pp. 6747-6753.

^3  Significantly, the petitioner was never told, nor does the record disclose for our consideration here, either the source or the nature of the alleged information referred to.

On these facts, which are undisputed in the record, the majority upholds petitioner’s conviction as ‘indistinguishable’ from that upheld in Barenblatt v. United States.
^4  On this point, I find myself only partially in disagreement with the majority. I think this case could and should be distinguished from Barenblatt on the ground urged by Mr. Justice DOUGLAS-that the resolution authorizing the Un-American Activities Committee does not authorize that Committee to interrogate a person for criticizing it. I therefore join in the dissent filed by Mr. Justice DOUGLAS on that ground. On the other hand, I must agree with the majority that so far as petitioner’s constitutional claims are concerned, Barenblatt is ‘indistin-

^5  I agree with the majority that, in a sense, ‘(t)hese circumstances, however, do not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the subcommittee’s intent was personal persecution of the petitioner’ (emphasis supplied), but I am satisfied that the evidence, though not absolutely conclusive, is overwhelming.

^6  The ‘evidence’ relied upon by the Committee is contained in the following colloquy between the informant, a Mrs. Schneider, and the Committee counsel, a Mr. Arens:

‘Mr. Arens. Was it (the Citizens Committee To Preserve American Freedoms) Communist-controlled?

‘Mrs. Schneider. Yes.

‘Mr. Arens. Who was the ringleader in that organization?

‘Mrs. Schneider. I didn’t work in that organization, and I don’t know who the ringleader was. My contact on that occasion was with Frank Wilkinson, I believe.

‘Mr. Arens. Did you know him as a Communist?

‘Mrs. Schneider. Yes.’ Hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, op. cit., supra, n. 2, at 6730.

^7  This, of course, is the established practice in hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

^8  18 U.S.C. § 3500, 18 U.S.C.A. § 3500.

^9  See, e.g., Communist Party of United States v. Subversive Activities Control Board, 351 U.S. 115, 76 S.Ct. 663, 100 L.Ed. 1003; Mesarosh v. United States, 352 U.S. 1, 77 S.Ct. 1, 1 L.Ed.2d 1.

^10  The test is stated by the majority in its opinion in Barenblatt in the following terms: ‘Where First Amendment rights are asserted to bar governmental interrogation resolution of the issue always involves a balancing by the courts of the competing private and public interests at stake in the particular circumstances shown.’ 360 U.S. at page 126, 79 S.Ct. at page 1093, Cf. American Communications Ass’n, CIO v. Douds, 339 U.S. 382, 70 S.Ct. 674, 94 L.Ed. 925; Beauharnais v. People of State of Illinois, 343 U.S. 250, 72 S.Ct. 725, 96 L.Ed. 919.

^11  Mr. Justice Brandeis made this very point in his concurring opinion in Whitney v. People of State of California, where he said: ‘Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the state was to make men free to develop their faculties; and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty.’ 274 U.S. 357, 375, 47 S.Ct. 641, 648, 71 L.Ed. 1095. Mr. Justice Brandeis doubtless had in mind, and indeed made specific reference to, the famous words in Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address: ‘If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this union or change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.’

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