HUAC and Harvard

Brass Tacks

Last summer the House Un-American Activities Committee treated the public to a rare political extravaganza. During its investigation of anti-war organizations a defense lawyer was hauled, screaming, from the hearing room, one witness appeared in the uniform of a revolutionary war soldier, and numerous spectators were ejected for yelling in the midst of the proceedings.

But a number of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, saw the investigation as something more serious than a carnival. What angered them most of all was that HUAC had obtained membership lists of student anti-war groups by serving the administrations of Berkeley, Stanford, and the University of Michigan with subpoenas. The ACLU, to prevent a recurrence of these hearings, wrote letters to the Presidents of 900 American colleges, urging them to withhold the membership lists of political organizations from HUAC. President Grayson Kirk of Columbia University announced that HUAC would have to take the university into court in order to obtain these lists.

At Harvard, Vern Countryman and several other Law School professors asked the University to take all possible legal steps to keep the lists from falling into HUAC's hands. Gilbert Gale '69, head of an ad hoc committee to abolish HUAC, wrote a letter to President Pusey asking him to make a public statement on the University's policy toward a possible subpoena.

In a March 6 response to Gale's letter, Pusey said that the University would not commit itself to non-compliance with a HUAC subpoena before such a subpoena was actually served. While the Young Republicans commended Pusey for his handling of the matter, other individuals and organizations were not so pleased. The Harvard Undergraduate Council, for example, urged the Corporation to reconsider Pusey's decision.

Pusey's reply did not mean that the University would necessarily surrender membership lists. His response to Senator McCarthy in the early fifties shows he does not lack the courage to stand up to HUAC. In the present case Pusey was unwilling to commit the University until he saw the actual terms of the subpoena. Pusey was probably trying to avoid unnecessary publicity. Also, he may have been concerned with possible repercussions on Harvard's relations with other government committees and agencies.

Pusey's critics reply that academic freedom is seriously threatened by HUAC's actions and that Harvard has a unique responsibility in the academic world to lead the opposition. The critics also fear that HUAC may wait until the summer to issue the subpoena when students would not be present to protest. This tactic was used successfully against Berkeley, Stanford, and Michigan.

But if Harvard refuses to comply with a HUAC subpoena, the University may be taken to court and charged with contempt of Congress. In his letter to Gale, Pusey suggested that this was not possible. "The College dean's office," Pusey wrote, "does not require membership lists of political organizations, so, of course, we would not be able to give this information even if requested to do so." This statement, however, is not wholly correct. Harvard keeps a record of the officers of all student organizations, and reserves the right of access to membership lists of political organizations, though this right is rarely exercised. It is unclear, therefore, whether the court would rule that Harvard is unable to comply with a possible HUAC order.

If the court decided that Harvard had the ability to comply, then it would have to decide whether or not a HUAC subpoena was a violation of the freedoms of speech and association. Countryman believes that the most important precedent in such a decision would be NAACP v. Alabama, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Alabama had no right to subpoena membership lists from the NAACP. In his majority opinion, Justice Harlan wrote: "Abridgement of such rights [free speech and free association], even though unintended, may inevitably follow from varied forms of government action." This implies that HUAC's hearings, by exposing an association's members to public castigation, would constitute an indirect abridgement of right.

But the Court was also influenced by "the substantiality of Alabama's interest in obtaining membership lists." Alabama wanted the lists to see if the NAACP had violated its law requiring the registration of foreign corporations. While the Court found this motive insubstantial, it might take a different view of HUAC's desire to uncover subversive activity in student groups. In Bryant v. Zimmerman the Supreme Court upheld a disclosure of Ku Klux Klan membership lists because of the "particular character of the Klan's activities." Furthermore, in the NAACP case the Court believed that publication of membership rolls would "expose members to economic reprisal, loss of employment, threat of physical coercion, and other manifestations of public hostility." Members of college organizations who appear before HUAC probably have less to lose than NAACP members in Alabama.

Nevertheless, there are compelling reasons why Harvard should take a stand against a HUAC subpoena. If Harvard proclaims its opposition, many other colleges may follow suit. Since Chairman Pool announced last fall that his committee would investigate civil rights groups, he will probably require more membership lists. If Harvard or any other college goes to court to protect its students, it is possible that it will be judged in contempt of Congress. But the precedents seem favorable to the colleges, and, with the present Supreme Court's sensitivity to infringement of civil liberties, the risks appear relatively slight.