Barenblatt v. United States 360 U.S. 109 (1959)

views updated


In a 5–4 decision, Justice john marshall harlan writing for the majority, the Supreme Court upheld Barenblatt's conviction for contempt of Congress based on his refusal to answer questions of the house committee on un-american activities about his membership in the Communist party. He argued that such questions violated his rights of freedom of speech and association by publically exposing his political beliefs. In an earlier decision, watkins v. united states (1957), the Court had offered some procedural protections to witnesses before such committees and held out hope that it would offer even greater protections in the future. Barenblatt ended that hope.

The Court did follow the Watkins approach of denouncing "exposure for the exposure's sake" and requiring that Congress have a legislative purpose for its investigations. But it presumed that Congress did have such a purpose, refusing to look at the actual congressional motives behind the investigation.

Barenblatt is the classic case of a first amendment ad hoc balancing test. The Court held that the First Amendment protected individuals from compelled disclosure of their political associations. But Justice Harlan went on to say, "Where First Amendment rights are asserted to bar governmental interrogation, resolution of the issue always involved a balancing by the Courts of the competing private and public interest at stake in the circumstances shown." Then he balanced Barenblatt's interest in not answering questions about his communist associations against Congress's interest in frustrating the international communist conspiracy to overthrow the United States government. The interests thus defined, the Court had no trouble striking the balance in favor of the government. More than any other decision, Barenblatt establishes that the freedom of speech may be restricted by government if, in the Court's view, the government's interest in committing the infringement is sufficiently compelling.

Martin Shapiro