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Barenblatt v. United States (1959)

Barenblatt v. United States (1959)
360 U.S. 109; 79 S.Ct. 1081; 3 L.Ed. 2d 1115 (1959)
Vote: 5-4

The Facts of the case are these: “As part of its investigation into Communist infiltration into the education system, the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed Lloyd Barenblatt, a former college professor. Barenblatt appeared before the committee but refused to answer its questions, which dealt primarily with his political beliefs and associations. Barenblatt based his refusal not on the self-incrimination clause of the Fifth Amendment, but on the First Amendment protections of political speech and association. Barenblatt was convicted of contempt of Congress.” The case now moves to the U.S. Supreme Court for a decision…

The Issues in this case are these: 1. Does Barenblatt have a First Amendment right to his political beliefs, his speech and his association? 2. Was Congress’s investigation constitutional?

The Holding in this case was that: 1. Yes, but Congress did not offend his First Amendment rights, while instead they offended his Fifth Amendment right, but that right was not invoked by Barenblatt. 2. Yes, the Court had never questioned the investigatory power of Congress, and they believe that Congress has the authority to legislate Communist activity.

The Majority Opinion written by Justice Harlen indicated that “Congress has wide power to legislate in the field of Communist activity in this Country, and to conduct appropriate investigations in aid thereof, is hardly debatable…. We think that investigatory power in this domain is not to be denied Congress solely because the field of education is involved….Indeed we do not understand the petitioner here to suggest that Congress in no circumstances may inquire into Communist activity in the field of education…. Thus, in stating in the Watkins Case … that ‘there is no congressional power to expose for the sake of exposure,’ we at the same time declined to inquire into the ‘motives of committee members,’ and recognized that their ‘motives alone would not vitiate an investigation which had been instituted by a House of Congress if that assembly’s legislative purpose is being served. We conclude that the balance between the individual and the governmental interests here at stake must be struck in favor of the latter, and there therefore the provisions of the First Amendment have not been offended.

Justice Black, with whom Chief Justice Warren and Mr. Justice Douglas concur, dissenting….

Mr. Justice Brennan, dissenting states in part: “…I would reverse this conviction. It is sufficient that I state my complete argument with my Brother Black that no purpose for the investigation of Barenblatt is reversed by the record except exposure purely for the sake of exposure. This is not a purpose to which Barenblatt’s rights under the First Amendment can validly be subordinated…”


The Significance of this case is that, unlike the Watkins case, the witness in that case answered questions, but refused to answer questions against others. However, the Court in that instance indicated that the witness has a right to remain silent and not incriminate themselves. They also held that Congress could only ask questions of a witness if it has something to do with legislative business. In that case Watkins’s conviction was reversed, this case I believe was different because the witness didn’t reiterate his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, but instead reiterate his First Amendment right to Freedom of Speech and  Freedom of Association.

Citation: American Constitutional Law: Sources of Power and Restraint, Congress and the Development of National Power

Legal Brief by David A.W. Hittle
May 3, 2013