When the History of Education Quarterly asked me to contribute to a symposium on academic freedom, I could hardly refuse. I had recently written a book about how anti-communist witch hunters in the late 1940s and 1950s attacked teachers and professors, and about the Supreme Court’s eventual (and much-belated) response in 1967–striking down a typical state loyalty law and announcing that academic freedom is a “a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.” That case was called Keyishian v. Board of Regents and my book, Priests of Our Democracy, told its history.

The question for the symposium was what lessons might be learned for today from historical research into issues of academic freedom. One irony of the Keyishian case was that the state loyalty law in question required officials to investigate the political beliefs of all public employees, including teachers and professors, but it did not require employees to sign a “test oath” denying any “subversive” beliefs. It was the state university board of trustees that decided to require such an oath–a written denial of present or former Communist Party membership and an acknowledgment of the broad terms of the loyalty law. Possibly the trustees saw it as a convenient way to avoid many thousands of individual investigations into people’s friends, political associations, reading habits, and other aspects of private life. There would have been no Keyishian case without the oath, because the five professors (at the University of Buffalo) who refused to sign it were not communists and would not likely have gotten in trouble as the result of a political investigation. But they objected on principle to the oath, understanding that it was not just some meaningless piece of paper, but a forced ritual of conformity and a warning to keep silent about any possibly left-wing beliefs.

One theme that runs through my book is whether more resistance to loyalty laws at Buffalo–or, for that matter, throughout academia–would have made a difference in stopping or slowing the horrific damage done in those years by political inquisitions, blacklisting, and the morally repugnant practice of forcing ex-communists to “name names” of others in the movement. Harry Keyishian and his fellow plaintiff, George Hochfield, firmly believed that if, instead of only five resisters, hundreds of faculty at Buffalo who hated the oath had stood their ground and refused to sign, the trustees would have had to back down.

Loyalty oaths are not a big issue on campuses today, but blacklists of politically disapproved professors are being circulated by such right-wing groups as Campus Watch and Professor Watchlist, and virulent, sometimes violent, threats against professors with views disfavored by the harassers have become common. On top of this toxic political atmosphere is the huge change in American universities–increasing corporatization and massive use of contingent rather than tenured or tenure-track faculty, all of which has dire implications for academic freedom.

How to resist? Union organizing of faculty, where legally possible, is one answer. Collective pressure to strengthen dormant or powerless faculty senates is another. If you are a higher-ed teacher (or student, for that matter), contact the American Association of University Professors for ideas.

Read Majorie Heins’ full article “A Pall of Orthodoxy over the Classroom”: Lessons from the Great Keyishian Case

Read the full History of Education Quarterly Forum here

Marjorie Heins is the former director of the ACLU’s Arts Censorship Project and the author of Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge (2013) and, most recently, Ironies and Complications of Free Speech: News and Commentary from the Free Expression Policy Project.

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