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Barenblatt v. United States

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Significance: The Supreme Court upheld a conviction for contempt of Congress, ruling that the public's interest in opposing communist infiltration outweighed a person's limited First Amendment right to refuse to answer questions.


When Lloyd Barenblatt, a college professor, appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he refused to answer questions that dealt with his political beliefs and associations. Rather than relying on the Fifth Amendment, he alleged that the questions infringed on his right to free expression under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court had appeared to give some support to such a claim in Watkins v. United States (1957). Barenblatt was convicted of contempt of Congress. Speaking for a 5-4 majority, Justice John M. Harlan II used a balancing of interests approach. Although Harlan acknowledged that the First Amendment in some circumstances protects a person “from being compelled to disclose his associational relationships,” he concluded that Barenblatt's particular claim was outweighed by the public's interest in exposing communist subversion. In contrast to the situation in Watkins, Harlan found that the subcommittee had explained the relevance of the questions and had not attempted to pillory witnesses. The Barenblatt decision was never overruled. In Eastland v. United States Servicemen's Club (1975), the Court strengthened the prerogatives of congressional committees by expansively reading the speech or debate clause. When dealing with state investigations, on the other hand, the Court has tended to demonstrate greater concern for protecting First Amendment values.