Barenblatt v. United States, 360 U.S. 109 (1959), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee did not violate the First Amendment and, thus, the Court upheld Barenblatt's conviction for contempt of Congress. The Court held that the congressional committee had authority to compel a college professor to answer questions about his Communist Party membership.
During hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Lloyd Barenblatt, refused to answer questions concerning his political and religious beliefs along with his associational activities. He was found in contempt of Congress for failing to cooperate with the committee investigation. The decision was made on June 8, 1959.
The Court, in a 5-4 decision, held that HUAAC did not violate Barenblatt's First Amendment rights. Justice Harlan's opinion stated that "Where First Amendment rights are asserted to bar governmental interrogation, resolution of the issue involves a balancing of the competing private and public interests." Harlan then struck a balance in favor of the government: "That Congress has wide power to legislate in the field of Communist activity in this Country, and to conduct appropriate investigations in aid thereof, is hardly debatable. This power rests on the right of self-preservation, the ultimate value of any society." This governmental interest was found to outweigh Professor Barenblatt's First Amendment interest in studying, discussing, and associating with those interested in the theories of Communism. Professor Barenblatt claimed he never sought to overthrow the government through his discussions of Communism. Nevertheless, the Court deferred to Congress's power to investigate for legislative purposes.
Two dissenting opinions were presented. Justice Hugo Black's dissent was concurred with by Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justice William O. Douglas. Black dissented on these grounds: First, that the term "Un-American" in the committee's mission was so vague as to make the committee's mandate void under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. Second, the Court's "balancing test" as to the applicability of First Amendment rights was not the way to determine the scope of freedom of speech, and if it were, the Court should have balanced the interest of society in "being able to join organizations, advocate causes and make political 'mistakes'" against the government's limited interest in making laws in the area of free speech..." Third, "the chief aim, purpose, and practice of the HUAAC...is to try witnesses and punish them because they are of have been Communists or because they refuse or admit or deny Communist affiliations."
Justice William J. Brennan, also dissenting, wrote, "...no purpose for the investigation of Barenblatt is revealed by the record except exposure purely for the sake of exposure. This is not the purpose to which Barenblatt's rights under the First Amendment can validly be subordinated. An investigation in which the processes of law-making and law-evaluating are submerged entirely in exposure of individual behavior-in adjudication, of a sort, through the exposure process-is outside the constitutional pale of congressional inquiry."
Justice Black rejected the Court's balancing test: "I do not agree that laws directly abridging First Amendment freedoms can be justified by a balancing process... [The balancing test] completely leaves out the real interest in Barenblatt's silence, the interest of the people as a whole in being able to join organizations, advocate causes and make political 'mistakes' without later being subjected to governmental penalties for having dared to think for themselves."