Watkins v. United States 1957

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Watkins v. United States 1957

Petitioner: John T. Watkins

Respondent: United States of America

Petitioner's Claim: That convicting him for refusing to answer questions before a Congressional committee violated the U.S. Constitution.

Chief Lawyer for Petitioner: Joseph L. Rauh, Jr.

Chief Lawyer for Respondent: J. Lee Rankin, U.S. Solicitor General

Justices for the Court: Hugo Lafayette Black, William J. Brennan, Jr., William O. Douglas, Felix Frankfurter, John Marshall Harlan II, Earl Warren

Justices Dissenting: Tom C. Clark (Harold Burton and Charles Evans Whittaker did not participate)

Date of Decision: June 17, 1957

Decision: The Supreme Court reversed Watkins's conviction. It said Congress went beyond its powers by asking Watkins to reveal the names of former Communists.

Significance: Congress does not have unlimited power to investigate the private lives of American citizens.

During most of the twentieth century, communism competed with the American system of capitalism for world domination. Under communism, the government owns all property so that people can share it equally. Under capitalism, individuals own property and can accumulate as much as they want for themselves. Communists believe that workers under capitalism suffer to make business and property owners wealthy. Capitalists believe that people under communism suffer to make government officials wealthy and powerful.

In 1917, the Communist Party took control of the government in Russia. In 1922, Russia and other communist countries in Asia combined to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ("USSR"). The USSR's goal was to spread communism throughout the world, by force and violence if necessary. After World War II ended in 1945, Soviet troops helped communist governments take control in Eastern Europe.

Congress investigates

In the United States, some members of the Communist Party wanted to overthrow the federal government and replace it with communism. Because the Communist Party was successful in the USSR and Eastern Europe, many Americans feared it would succeed in the United States, too. Communism became very unpopular in the United States. "Better dead than red" became a popular saying, referring to the color of the USSR's flag. If a person became known as a communist, he often faced threats and punishment from employers, neighbors, and the government.

In 1938, the U.S. House of Representatives formed a committee to investigate communism and other "un-American" activities. It became known as the House Un-American Activities Committee ("HUAC"). Generally, Congressional committees are allowed to do three things. They may investigate government misconduct, study whether current laws are working, and determine if the United States needs new laws.

HUAC, however, seemed to be doing something different. It seemed to be trying to get rid of American communists by exposing them to the public. In fact, a HUAC report said the committee's job was simply "to expose people and organizations attempting to destroy [the United States]." American communists believed this violated the First Amendment, which protects the right to belong to any political organization.

HUAC questions Watkins

John T. Watkins was a labor union official. Labor unions fight for workers' rights. The Communist Party believes that people should share wealth equally. Because the groups share similar philosophies, many people associated with labor unions also were members of the Communist Party. Two people testified before HUAC that Watkins was a member of the Communist Party. In April 1954, Watkins himself testified before HUAC. Watkins admitted that he helped the Communist Party between 1942 and 1947 by giving it money, signing petitions, and attending conferences. Watkins said he had a disagreement with the Communist Party in 1947 that prevented him from helping it again.

HUAC then read a list of people to Watkins and asked whether any of them had ever been members of the Communist Party. Watkins refused to name people who used to be members but no longer were. Watkins said he did not believe Congress had the right to expose people because of their past activities.

The United States filed criminal charges against Watkins for his refusal to answer HUAC's questions. Watkins argued that HUAC's questions violated the First Amendment, especially the freedoms of speech and association. The trial court disagreed, found Watkins guilty, and placed him on probation. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed (approved) Watkins' conviction, so Watkins took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The right to privacy

On June 17, 1957, the Supreme Court decided four cases, including Watkins, in favor of alleged communists. That day became known as "Red Monday." In Watkins, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote a long opinion that analyzed Congress's power to investigate and the limitations on that power.

Justice Warren said Congress's power to make laws also includes the power to conduct investigations. Congress may investigate government misconduct, the working of existing laws, and the need for new laws. Congress, however, has "no general authority to expose the private affairs of individuals" or "to punish those investigated."

When Congress investigates a person, it must obey his constitutional rights. Under the First Amendment, those rights include the freedoms of speech and association. Because speech stems from beliefs, the freedom of speech includes the right to believe. The freedom of association protects the right to belong to political groups, even the Communist Party.

Justice Warren described these freedoms as a "right to privacy." He said forcing someone to reveal his or other people's unpopular beliefs or associations, such as membership in the Communist Party, could result in hateful attacks by the public. That violates the privacy protected by the First Amendment. As Justice Warren put it, "there is no congressional power to expose for the sake of exposure."

Congress created HUAC to investigate "un-American" activity. Justice Warren said that term was too hard to define and it allowed HUAC to investigate things outside Congress's three main investigational powers. The committee's vague purpose made it impossible for Watkins to know whether the questions about former communists were within Congress' power, or an abuse of that power. Convicting Watkins for refusing to answer such questions was unfair under the U.S. Constitution, so his conviction had to be reversed.

Fighting communism

Justice Tom C. Clark dissented, meaning he disagreed with the Court's decision. Justice Clark believed communism was dedicated to overthrowing the federal government, by violence and force, if necessary. He said Congress was allowed to investigate what kinds of laws it needed to fight communism, and citizens were required to share information they had related to HUAC's investigation. Clark said, "There is no general privilege of silence." He feared the Court's decision would prevent Congress from doing its job for the United States.


I n Watkins, the Supreme Court said the executive branch of government is the one with power to investigate criminal activity. Within the executive branch, the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") handles that job. Like Congress in Watkins, however, the FBI often is accused of violating the right to privacy.

In fact, when Congress investigated the FBI in the mid-1970s, it found several instances of misconduct. Although the FBI is supposed to work solely for the country, it also did personal political work for Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. For example, in 1964 the FBI investigated the staff of President Johnson's political opponent, Barry Goldwater.

Congress also learned about an FBI program called Cointelpro. Between 1956 and 1971, the FBI used Cointelpro to investigate Americans involved in unpopular activities, such as communism, socialism, and the civil rights movement. The FBI's tactics under Cointelpro included illegal wiretapping, kidnapping, and burglary. The Senate called these tactics "degrading to a free society."


The Red Monday decisions angered conservative Americans. Senator William Jenner tried to pass a law eliminating the Supreme Court's power to review cases involving communists. The law was not enacted, and the Court voted in favor of convicting communists in some future cases. The Red Scare of communism calmed down by the end of the 1950s, and HUAC later abandoned its investigations. Contrary to Justice Clark's concerns, Watkins has not hurt Congress' ability to conduct investigations. Congress simply may not violate the right to privacy protected by the First Amendment when it investigates individual citizens.

Suggestions for further reading

Davis, James Kirkpatrick. Spying on America: The FBI's Domestic Counter-Intelligence Program. New York: Praeger, 1992.

Dolan, Edward F. Your Privacy: Protecting It in a Nosy World. New York: Cobblehill Books, 1995.

Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. Your Right to Privacy. New York: Franklin Watts, 1986.

King, David C. Freedom of Assembly. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1997.

Weber, Michael L. Our Congress. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1994.

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