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Priests of Our Democracy:
The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge

By Marjorie Heins

"Important and compelling ... Tells the stories of professors and teachers victimized by academic purges, while deftly navigating more than 50 years of legal battles and constitutional controversies."

                                              -Stephen Rohde, Los Angeles Review of Books

"A masterpiece of legal journalism ... magnificently negotiating the many tripwires of an intricate story ... .... Heins shows us a labyrinth of tangled lives that makes her story attention-grabbing and compelling."

- Professor Alan Wald, University of Michigan, U.S. Intellectual History blog

“Meets [Anthony] Lewis’ standard, combining sophisticated legal analysis with compelling historical narrative. ... [A]n outstanding book, an engaging and insightful addition to First Amendment scholarship as well as constitutional history.”

- Daniel Smith, Law and Politics Book Review

"Fact-filled, balanced, and yet thought-provoking. ... I recommend this book to students, scholars, and citizens who care about academic freedom and about the fate of public discourse in America. I also recommend Priests of Our Democracy to those who worry that the war against terror has become in part a war against civil rights and civil liberties at home."

                                                                          - Jonah Raskin, Truthout

Winner of the 2013 Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award for Book Publishing


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.

The U.S. Supreme Court in these years rejected nearly every First Amendment challenge to the investigations and firings. One of its major decisions, rejecting the claim that academic freedom protects teachers from political inquisitions, came from New York City, where political, cultural, and ethnic tensions played out with particular ferocity. Gradually, as the public recoiled against the excesses of McCarthyism, and as the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren began to get its bearings, the justices responded with decisions at first chipping away at loyalty investigations, and eventually, in 1967, announcing that academic freedom is “a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.”

That case, too, arose in New York. Five professors at the Buffalo campus of the state university risked their jobs by refusing to sign an anti-communist oath; then they filed suit to challenge the state's entire convoluted apparatus of loyalty investigations. Their victory at the Supreme Court brought an end to an ugly era of political repression in schools and colleges, and eventually throughout the nation.

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.

Order from NYU Press, Politics and Prose, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble.

Read the reviews: Publishers Weekly, History News Network, Truthout, Los Angeles Review of Books, Reason Magazine, Brooklyn Rail, Library Journal, Socialist Review (UK), Academe

Excerpts from the reviews

Video interviews on YouTube

Blogs, articles, and interviews

Interviews on radio:

WBAI, Law & Disorder

WNYC, Leonard Lopate

Rag Radio

WAMC, Northeast Public Radio

KPFA, The Morning Mix

The Fairness Doctrine

Northern Spirit Radio

Viewpoints: "Making Tough Decisions: Inside the Supreme Court"

"To regard teachers—in our entire educational system, from
the primary grades to the university—as the priests of our
democracy is not to indulge in hyperbole. It is the special task
of teachers to foster those habits of open-mindedness and
critical inquiry which alone make for responsible citizens."

                              —Justice Felix Frankfurter, Wieman v. Updegraff, 1952


The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The FEPP website is now hosted by the National Coalition Against Censorship. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

All material on this site is covered by a Creative Commons "Attribution - No Derivs - NonCommercial" license. (See http://creativecommons.org) You may copy it in its entirely as long as you credit the Free Expression Policy Project and provide a link to the Project's Web site. You may not edit or revise it, or copy portions, without permission (except, of course, for fair use). Please let us know if you reprint!