On the evening of February 6, 1948, close to 1,000 people squeezed into New Lecture Hall to hear a debate between a Harvard professor and the Attorney-General of Massachusetts.
Most of the crowd was composed of students; most of them were cheerfully hostile to the Attorney-General. The subject of the debate was a bill he was sponsoring, which if passed, would have had far-reaching effects upon the University and the whole educational system of the Commonwealth.
This bill, "H-220," barred from employment in any educational institution in the state any "person who is a member of the Communist Party or who by speech or in writing advocates its doctrines, or who by speech or in writing advocates the overthrow by force" of the government.
The bill also provided that if "violations" occurred, both the employee and the employer would be punished by a maximum penalty of one year's imprisonment and a $10,000 fine.
The Harvard professor, Kirtley F. Mather, argued that the bill's wording was dangerously loose. He said that Communists advocate such "doctrines" as freedom of speech and world peace. Any professor--or any dormitory janitor--who expressed similar views would be subject to prosecution if the bill were enacted, he claimed.
The Attorney-General, Clarence A. Barnes, complained that his opponents were reading too much into his proposal. "This bill places no prohibition against the teachings of any subject or of any doctrine," he said. "It merely forbids the employment of teachers who are committed to a program of lies, deceits, and treachery."
Three days after the Mather-Barnes debate, President Conant testified before the House Education Committee, which had been considering the Barnes Bill since February 3. Conant spoke officially for Harvard, and was joined by representatives from Clark, Wellesley, Simmons, Williams, and MIT. They all condemned the bill.
The opposition to H-220 was successful. On March 3, the Barnes Bill--in amended form--was voted down by the House. At the same time, however, the House approved a bill excluding Communists from teaching in any state school or college.
This bill got through the Senate and was signed by Governor Robert F. Bradford '23 on March 19. It lacked practically all of the controversial features of the Attorney-General's proposal.
In the same period, there were three other measures in the same general spirit. All were defeated.
This spring, roughly a year after the Barnes Bill episode, there appeared another legislative attempt to throttle "subversive teaching" in Massachusetts.
Although this bill, presented by Representative Ralph W. Sullivan, at the beginning of the 1949 General Court session, attracted considerably less attention from the University than the Barnes Bill had, it also got considerably further along the path to enactment before it was scotched.
Sullivan's bill removed from tax exempt status "any educational organization that knowingly employs on its faculty a member of the Communist Party, or one who teaches its doctrines of atheism."
At first Sullivan remarked that he had no hope of getting his proposal passed, but by the date of the bill's hearing, March 28, he had become more optimistic. He announced that he would press hard for the passage of H-442, and substituted for "atheistic communism" advocacy of "the overthrow of the government of the United States by force or violence."
After the hearing ended, the Education Committee switched the wording of H-442 back from "advocacy of overthrow" to "atheistic communism." The penalty, which had been on the institution concerned, was instead placed on the individual teacher.
This re-worked version passed the House on May 4 without a single dissent, but was defeated in the Senate 5 days later. One representative said that most of his colleagues opposed the bill, but that they were "afraid to voice opposition to it because they themselves might be open to accusations of sympathizing with Communism."