Barenblatt v. United States, 360 U.S. 109 (1959)

Author: U.S. Supreme Court

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Barenblatt v. United States, 360 U.S. 109 (1959)

Barenblatt v. United States

No. 35

Argued November 18, 1958
Decided June 8, 1959
360 U.S. 109



Summoned to testify before a Subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, which was investigating alleged Communist infiltration into the field of education, petitioner, formerly a graduate student and teaching fellow at the University of Michigan, refused to answer questions as to whether he was then or had ever been a member of the Communist Party. He disclaimed reliance upon the privilege against self-incrimination, but objected generally to the right of the Subcommittee to inquire into his "political" and "religious" beliefs or any "other personal or private affairs" or "associational activities" upon grounds set forth in a previously prepared memorandum, which was based on the First, Ninth, and Tenth Amendments, the prohibition against bills of attainder and the doctrine of separation of powers. For such refusal, he was convicted of a violation of 2 U.S.C. § 192, which makes it a misdemeanor for any person summoned as a witness by either House of Congress or a committee thereof to refuse to answer any question pertinent to the question under inquiry. He was fined and sentenced to imprisonment for six months.

Held: Petitioner’s conviction is sustained. Pp. 111-134.

1. In the light of the Committee’s history and the repeated extensions of its life, as well as the successive appropriations by the House of Representatives for the conduct of its activities, its legislative authority and that of the Subcommittee to conduct the inquiry under consideration here is unassailable, and House Rule XI, 83d Congress, which defines the Committee’s authority, cannot be said to be constitutionally infirm on the score of vagueness. Watkins v. United States, 354 U.S. 178, distinguished. Pp. 116-123.

(a) Rule XI has a "persuasive gloss of legislative history" which shows beyond doubt that, in pursuance of its legislative concerns in the domain of "national security," the House of Representatives has clothed the Committee with pervasive authority to investigate Communist activities in this country. Pp. 117-121.

(b) In the light of the legislative history, Rule XI cannot be construed so as to exclude the field of education from the Committee’s compulsory authority. Pp. 121-123.

2. The record in this case refutes petitioner’s contention that he was not adequately apprised of the pertinency of the Subcommittee’s questions to the subject matter of the inquiry. Watkins v. United States, supra, distinguished. Pp. 123-125.

3. On the record in this case, the balance between the individual and the governmental interests here at stake must be struck in favor of the latter, and therefore the provisions of the First Amendment were not transgressed by the Subcommittee’s inquiry into petitioner’s past or present membership in the Communist Party. Pp. 125-134.

(a) Where First Amendment rights are asserted to bar governmental interrogation, resolution of the issue always involves a balancing by the courts of the competing private and public interests at stake in the particular circumstances shown. Pp. 126-127.

(b) The investigation here involved was related to a valid legislative purpose, since Congress has wide power to legislate in the field of Communist activity in this Country and to conduct appropriate investigations in aid thereof. Pp. 127-129.

(c) Investigatory power in this domain is not to be denied Congress solely because the field of education is involved, and the record in this case does not indicate any attempt by the Committee to inquire into the content of academic lectures or discussions, but only to investigate the extent to which the Communist Party had succeeded in infiltrating into our educational institutions persons and groups committed to furthering the Party’s alleged objective of violent overthrow of the Government. Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234, distinguished. Pp. 129-132.

(d) On the record in this case, it cannot be said that the true objective of the Committee and of the Congress was purely "exposure," rather than furtherance of a valid legislative purpose. Pp. 132-133.

(e) The record is barren of other factors which, in themselves, might lead to the conclusion that the individual interests at stake were not subordinate to those of the Government. P. 134.

102 U.S.App.D.C. 217, 252 F.2d 129, affirmed.


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Chicago: U.S. Supreme Court, "Syllabus," Barenblatt v. United States, 360 U.S. 109 (1959) in 360 U.S. 109 360 U.S. 110–360 U.S. 111. Original Sources, accessed January 31, 2023,

MLA: U.S. Supreme Court. "Syllabus." Barenblatt v. United States, 360 U.S. 109 (1959), in 360 U.S. 109, pp. 360 U.S. 110–360 U.S. 111. Original Sources. 31 Jan. 2023.

Harvard: U.S. Supreme Court, 'Syllabus' in Barenblatt v. United States, 360 U.S. 109 (1959). cited in 1959, 360 U.S. 109, pp.360 U.S. 110–360 U.S. 111. Original Sources, retrieved 31 January 2023, from