Barenblatt v. United States, No. 35 360 U.S. 109; 79 S. Ct. 1081; 1959 U.S. LEXIS 1809; 3 L. Ed. 2d 1115

June 8, 1959, Decided

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The Defendant was called as a witness before a Congressional subcommittee investigating Communist infiltration into the field of education. The Defendants refused to answer questions as to his membership in and affiliation with the Communist Party. Hence, he was convicted in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia for violating 2 USC 192, dealing with contempt of Congress and congressional committees. On certiorari the United States Supreme Court affirmed his conviction based on the legislative authorization of Congress to investigate Communist activities. Justice Black dissented with Justices Warren and Douglas. Justice Brennan dissented alone.


Harlan for the 5 member majority:

Congress needs to force witnesses to testify in order to fulfill the scope of its congressional power and efficiently to exercise its legislative function. An authorization to a congressional committee cannot be construed narrowly in order to avoid constitutional issues where the authorization is not one which--because Congress put no gloss upon it at the time of its passage--has to speak for itself, nor one where the subsequent history of the authorization has the infirmity of self-serving declarations.

A conviction for contempt of a congressional committee under 2 USC 192 cannot stand unless the questions asked are pertinent to the subject matter of the investigation.

However, broad as the congressional power of inquiry is, it is not without limitations; Congress may only investigate into those areas in which it may potentially legislate or appropriate, and cannot inquire into matters which are within the exclusive province of another branch of the government. Hence, Congress may not involve itself in matters that pertain to either to the judiciary or the executive.

In addition, the Bill of Rights limits the inquiry capabilities of Congress. Hence, when academic teaching-freedom and learning-freedom are claimed, the United States Supreme Court will always be on the alert against intrusion by Congress into this constitutionally protected domain.

In addition, the provisions of the First Amendment reach and limit congressional investigations. The protections of the First Amendment do not afford a witness the right to resist inquiry in all circumstances. The courts must always balance the competing private and public interests at stake in the particular circumstances shown.

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