Priests of Our Democracy
The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge
by Marjorie Heins
Pub Date 04 Feb 2013
In the early 1950s, New York City’s teachers and professors became the targets of massive investigations into their political beliefs and associations. Those who refused to cooperate in the questioning were fired. Some had undoubtedly been communists, and the Communist Party-USA certainly made its share of mistakes, but there was never evidence that the accused teachers had abused their trust. Some were among the most brilliant, popular, and dedicated educators in the city.
Priests of Our Democracy tells of the teachers and professors who resisted the witch hunt, those who collaborated, and those whose battles led to landmark Supreme Court decisions. It traces the political fortunes of academic freedom beginning in the late 19th century, both on campus and in the courts. Combining political and legal history with wrenching personal stories, the book details how the anti-communist excesses of the 1950s inspired the Supreme Court to recognize the vital role of teachers and professors in American democracy. The crushing of dissent in the 1950s impoverished political discourse in ways that are still being felt, and First Amendment academic freedom, a product of that period, is in peril today. In compelling terms, this book shows why the issue should matter to every American.
Marjorie Heins is a civil liberties lawyer, writer, and teacher, and the founding director of the Free Expression Policy Project. Her previous book, Not in Front of the Children, won the American Library Association’s 2002 Eli Oboler Award for best published work in the field of intellectual freedom.
“A fascinating read. Heins creatively blends social and legal history to show how the right to academic freedom was forged out of the struggles and passions of America’s worst days of political repression, and why academic freedom is more important than ever today.”
-Nadine Strossen, former president, American Civil Liberties Union; Professor, New York Law School
"In this insightful and illuminating history of academic freedom and the Constitution, Marjorie Heins brings to life the characters, controversies, and cases that have framed the evolution of this critical and contentious realm of American liberty."
-Geoffrey R. Stone, Professor of Law, University of Chicago; author of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime
"Combining the legal insights of a constitutional scholar with the archival diligence of an historian, Marjorie Heins has written the definitive study of the Supreme Court’s most important academic freedom decision. It’s an engrossing account of the assault on educators during the McCarthy era that should be required reading for anyone who values our increasingly endangered First Amendment rights."
-Ellen Schrecker, Professor of History, Yeshiva University; author of No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities
"Marjorie Heins has given a human face to leading American controversies and cases about academic freedom, creatively integrating personal interviews and archival sources into her account of the developing law."
-David Rabban, Professor, University of Texas School of Law; author of Free Speech in its Forgotten Years
"With clarity and insight Marjorie Heins brings to life a part of American history often overlooked despite its importance to our democracy today. The tension between individual freedom and national security is as taut as it ever has been. We have much to learn from our earlier mistakes in yielding too readily to claims of the latter. This compelling book, which brilliantly illuminates earlier Supreme Court decisions, and the people and events behind them, is a wonderful place to begin."
-Margaret H. Marshall, former Chief Justice, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court