Supreme Court In 1957: Academic Freedom Is Self-Evident

The State Supreme Court thus conceded without extended discussion that petitioner’s right to lecture and his right to associate with others were constitutionally protected freedoms which had been abridged through this investigation. These conclusions could not be seriously debated. Merely to summon a witness and compel him, against his will, to disclose the nature of his past expressions and associations in a measure of governmental interference in these matters. These are rights which are safeguarded by the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment. We believe that there unquestionably was an invasion of petitioner’s liberties in the areas of academic freedom and political expression — areas in which government should be extremely reticent to tread.

The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation. No field of education is so thoroughly comprehended by man that new discoveries cannot yet be made. Particularly is that true in the social sciences, where few, if any, principles are accepted as absolutes. Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise, our civilization will stagnate and die.

Equally manifest as a fundamental principle of a democratic society is political freedom of the individual. Our form of government is built on the premise that every citizen shall have the right to engage in political expression and association. This right was enshrined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. Exercise of these basic freedoms in America has traditionally been through the media of political associations. Any interference with the freedom of a party is simultaneously an interference with the freedom of its adherents. All political ideas cannot and should not be channeled into the programs of our two major parties. History has amply proved the virtue of political activity by minority, dissident groups, who innumerable times have been in the vanguard of democratic thought and whose programs were ultimately accepted. Mere unorthodoxy or dissent from the prevailing mores is not to be condemned. The absence of such voices would be a symptom of grave illness in our society.

Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957) Chief Justice Warren writing for the majority (HT: FIRE)

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  1. ‘Almost’ self-evident. Please bear with this non-American observer’s noticing that certain things enshrined in US founding principles are said to be self-evident, but they strangely only appear self-evident when one has drunk deeply of John Locke and later Enlightenment thinking. They are, in truth, only ‘self-evident’ when one has already adopted a certain worldview, so all ‘self-evident’ in modern parlance really means is ‘consistent with that worldview’, i.e. the product of an a posteriori mindset, not self-evident in the sense that Augustine or the Greek philosophers would have understood the term, which would appeal to the a priori. Everything that Chief Justice Warren says here is in the context of freedoms that the state guarantees by its constitution in ‘our form of government’, not absolutely. The lower New Hampshire court stated correctly, it seems to me, that these relate to ‘individual liberties guaranteed to every citizen by the State and Federal Constitutions, but are not absolute rights’. That said, there are what US constitutional documents refer to as ‘inalienable rights’, which presumably relate to absolute rights, but again, what is ‘inalienable’ is a product of one’s worldview. The Presbyterian Church in the US in 1788, just a few years after the Revolution, considered liberty of conscience to worship in any way a man sees fit be his inalienable right, and ‘toleration of false religion’ was excised from the list of sins against the Ten Commandments. 150 years earlier that would have been considered an appalling, and subversive change.

    • Kevin,

      I have come to doubt the indispensability of Locke and the Enlightenment to the American project. It is beyond doubt that most of the 18th-century founders were deeply influenced by Locke and the Enlightenment but the 18th-century revolution did not happen de novo and the colonists who came to these shores, though not Enlightenment figures, came to see many of the same social truths. Further, the influence of the Enlightenment did not reach much beyond the elites in the 18th century nor through most of the 19th and arguably not even until the mid-20th century. America’s relationship with the Enlightenment(s) was more complicated than sometimes portrayed.

    • Yes, Witte and others try to show that these are developments of Calvinism, but in my opinion such studies fail to distinguish between what was truly Reformed and biblical, and what belongs to people calling themselves Calvinists but imbibing the spirit of the age. No doubt someone will write a treatise suggesting that ‘gay marriage’ is a development of Calvinism, an outgrowth of freedom and equality, citing the PCUSA as the largest Presbyterian denomination.

      Witte states the following in the work you cite: ‘Calvin’s original teachings were periodically challenged by major crises in the West…In each such crisis moment, a major Calvinist figure emerged…who modernized Calvin’s teachings and converted them into dramatic new legal and political reforms.’

      ‘Modernized’, ‘converted’ and ‘dramatic new…reforms’ I’m afraid means radically changing the ‘original teachings’. We need only mention one, the Establishment Principle. Whether we look to Bullinger, Calvin, or Perkins or elsewhere we will find that the magisterial Reformation held that the primary task of the civil magistrate was the care of religion. It is not called the magisterial Reformation for nothing. The Radical Reformers, i.e. the Anabaptists, thought otherwise. Move on to the seventeenth century, and whether we look in the British Isles (Westminster Assembly) or the congregationally-minded American colonists (Cambridge Platform), the Establishment Principle was alive and well in the 1640s. As I mentioned, by 1788, no coincidence just after the American Revolution, we find the Presbyterian Church in the United States re-writing the Westminster Standards to bring them in line with ‘modern’ thinking, and all but a few states dropping the establishment principle, which was fully abandoned in the nineteenth century. In the nineteenth century one finds Scottish Presbyterians arguing strongly for the Establishment principle, and US Presbyterians strongly repudiating it.

      Douglas Kelly, who himself does not hold to the Establishment Principle and has a similar thesis to Witte, is candid enough to admit that Calvinists who maintain that principle are the heirs of Reformed thought on the matter, and that those who do not should honestly accept that they have adopted Anabaptist thinking. Of course, maybe the Anabaptists were right; but I think not. I think, however, it is disingenuous to argue that the idea of separation of church and state is Calvinist, or that the seeds of it were in Calvinism. One has only to read the Reformers to see that such ideas were regarded as utterly subversive. As I see it (and as Witte practically admits, as I have shown above), what we have are a succession of persons happy to call themselves Reformed and Calvinist who, rightly or wrongly, have adopted views from outside that tradition. Their developments of that tradition were, by and large, occasioned by the infusion of Enlightenment thinking, and its precursors, some of which are found in Anabaptism.

      • Kevin,

        I’ve been very plain here that I agree with Kuyper, that the NT nowhere teaches or condones or even suggests an established NT church. That hardly makes one Anabaptist, many of whom argued for no participation in the civil sphere at all. It was the universal Patristic view for the first two centuries. Those Christians were not Anabaptist since we know with certainty that, in the early 3rd century, they were practicing infant baptism and it is at least a reasonable (if disputed) inference that it was practiced in the 2nd century.

        You’re correct that all the magisterial Reformers held to an established church. I’ve many times here that the magisterial Reformers were understandably wrong about that. There were Anabaptists, however, who, when opportunity presented itself, also came to believe in an established church. See Münster.

        The question is whether Calvin’s “twofold kingdom” scheme can be modified to function in disestablished church-state setting. I think it can and it has worked reasonably well in the American experiment.

  2. “… Elected president in 1952, he named several members of the Warren Court including chief justice Earl Warren. Eisenhower would later call the appointment of Warren “the biggest damn-fool mistake I ever made.” He repeated the “mistake” of appointing a liberal activist to the Court three years later with with his nomination of William Brennan…”

    “The Warren Court Justices, Rulings, and Legacy,” Melvin I. Urofsky, ABC-CLIO: Santa Barbara, 2001. p. 264.

    And now the rest our country has to live with the consequences.

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