Priests of Our Democracy

The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge

373 pages

December, 2013

ISBN: 9781479860609



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Marjorie Heins is a civil liberties lawyer, writer, and teacher, and the founding director of the Free Expression Policy Project. Her previous book, Not in Front of the Children, won the American Library Association’s 2002 Eli Oboler Award for best published work in the field of intellectual freedom. Other books include Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy: A Guide to America's Censorship Wars; Cutting the Mustard: Affirmative Action and the Nature of Excellence; and Strictly Ghetto Property: The Story of Los Siete de la Raza. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School.

All books by Marjorie Heins

Priests of Our Democracy tells of the teachers and professors who battled the anti-communist witch hunt of the 1950s. It traces the political fortunes of academic freedom beginning in the late 19th century, both on campus and in the courts. Combining political and legal history with wrenching personal stories, the book details how the anti-communist excesses of the 1950s inspired the Supreme Court to recognize the vital role of teachers and professors in American democracy. The crushing of dissent in the 1950s impoverished political discourse in ways that are still being felt, and First Amendment academic freedom, a product of that period, is in peril today. In compelling terms, this book shows why the issue should matter to everyone.


  • "Marjorie Heins, a civil liberties lawyer and founder of the Free Expression Policy Project, tracks the collision of politics, academic freedom, free speech, and the Constitution in this dense, well-researched study . . . . This compelling study demonstrates that precedent does not guarantee indefinite protection, and every generation must fight for its freedoms."

    Publishers Weekly

  • "Marjorie Heins, a civil liberties lawyer, casts a gimlet eye on New York schools in the early 1950s, when teachers were fired merely for refusing to say whether they were communists . . . . Of course, some teachers were actually communists (and not all priests are perfect). But Ms. Heins's point, which she places in historical and contemporary context, is that 'the American political system is all too vulnerable to political repression and to demonizing the dissenter.' She makes a powerful case."

    —Sam Roberts, The New York Times

  • "Heins juxtaposes her compelling and distressing account of the anticommunist purges that reached into the ivory towers of our colleges and universities with a chilling cautionary tale that asks whether history is repeating itself through the repressive reactions to 9/11."

    —Stephen Rohde, Los Angeles Review of Books

  • "In this well-written study, civil liberties lawyer Heins pens an excellent historical account of the Cold War suppression of academic freedom in the US (at all educational levels) during the heyday of McCarthyism."

    —W.T. Howard, Bloomsburg University, CHOICE

  • "Fact-filled, balanced, and yet thought-provoking … I recommend this book to students, scholars, and citizens who care about academic freedom and about the fate of public discourse in America. I also recommend Priests of Our Democracy to those who worry that the war against terror has become in part a war against civil rights and civil liberties at home."

    —Jonah Raskin, Truthout

  • "Heins is a cautious analyst... she concludes her valuable study detailing how, over the last half-century, academic freedom continues to be challenged by local officials... Priests of Our Democracy... serve[s] as a reminder that Americans can't take First Amendment rights for granted."

    The Brooklyn Rail

  • "[A] masterpiece of legal journalism... attention-grabbing and compelling."

    —Alan Wald, Society for U.S. Intellectual History blog

  • "An excellent history of how the law has dealt with academic McCarthyism… Anyone with a stake in education [should read this book] for not only is it a good read about an important subject, but Heins tells a cautionary tale of an extensive and durable problem of which they are probably unaware."

    —Professor Andrew Feffer, History News Network

  • "A New York City girl, born and bred, Marjorie Heins provides infectious insight into the major battles waged between New York City teachers and the city government."

    American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression

  • "Well written, thorough, and full of personal details about the subjects, this is a telling account of teachers' struggle for academic freedom in America."

    —Harry Charles, St. Louis , Library Journal

  • "[Hein's] exhaustive research and meticulous analysis of Supreme Court decisions is an important addition to the growing literature on anti-Communism repression of this period....The significance of her book lies in her careful unraveling of the court's rulings on issues of academic freedom, most of them postwar Red Scare cases...This is an important and valuable book for anyone interested in the Constitutional dimension of the anti-Communism that marred the history of the mid-twentieth century U.S....Marjorie Heins has done a remarkable job."

    —Steve Leberstein, Working USA

  • “[E]xtensively researched and well-written…There are touching accounts of what teachers risked and what many lost…The twists and turns of Supreme Court judgements are not mystified, but explained in terms of its changing political composition and context. This ambitious book then examines some parallels and contrasts with recent sweeping ‘anti-terrorist’ legislation."

    Socialist Review

  • "Priests of Our Democracy is a smart, well-crafted insightful book by an especially qualified author."

    —Michael Steven Smith, Against the Current

  • "This is an important and valuable book for anyone interested in the Constitutional dimension of the anti-Communism that marred the history of the mid-twentieth century U.S. and that wreaked so much damage on schools, colleges, and unions. Marjorie Heins has done a remarkable job."

    The Journal of Labor & Society

  • "The author, Marjorie Heins, is a civil-liberties lawyer who provides a meticulous examination of the course of the First Amendment through the courts and the legislation's recognition of academic freedom during the McCarthy era. She also offers a chilling chapter on the consequences for university life since September 11, 2001, and concludes with an argument for the defense of academic freedom."

    —M.J. Heale, Journal of American History

  • "Heins has done a more than admirable job of explaining the history of academic freedom in the United States, especially in New York state and New York City, in the twentieth century."

    —Clay Calvert , Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly

  • “It is a rare book that meets [Anthony] Lewis’ standard, combining sophisticated legal analysis with compelling historical narrative. Rarer still is one that successfully takes on an era, as opposed to a single case, in ways that are both informative and engaging. Marjorie Heins manages to pull off this rare feat in Priests of Our Democracy. . . . [A]n outstanding book, an engaging and insightful addition to First Amendment scholarship as well as constitutional history.”

    —Daniel Smith, Law and Politics Book Review

  • "Priests of Our Democracy is rich with detailed accounts of the many ways teachers and professors have struggled to define their rights of political expression, not only in the McCarthy era but also before and since.  Heins shows that academic freedom is multidimensional, and its meanings are profoundly affected by cultural and political conditions.  It is a narrative that encourages us to believe that substantial progress has been made..."

    —Richard Flacks, The Journal of Higher Education

  • “What is ‘academic freedom,’ and why should it deserve special protection? These questions underpin Heins’s history of the efforts to police the politics of schoolteachers and university professors.  As the title suggests, Heins endorses Justice Felix Frankfurter’s assertion that teachers are ‘priests’ of America’s democracy, requiring exceptional freedoms to exchange ideas because of their special responsibility to foster ‘those habits of open-mindedness and critical inquiry which alone make for responsible citizens.’ The book shows how this assertion, and the body of case law underpinning it, emerged in the mid-twentieth century in response to efforts by anticommunists to control the classroom. It examines lawyers, activists, and individual citizens who challenged the establishment.”

    Journal of American Studies

  • "The tension between national security and individual freedoms remains today. Heins presents a fascinating perspective on how these tensions became influential in debates over academic freedom, while offering a somewhat scathing review of the high court’s ability to truly lead. Heins reminds the reader that the court more often follows societal trends than pushes towards progress.”


  • "Combining the legal insights of a constitutional scholar with the archival diligence of an historian, Marjorie Heins has written the definitive study of the Supreme Court’s most important academic freedom decision. It’s an engrossing account of the assault on educators during the McCarthy era that should be required reading for anyone who values our increasingly endangered First Amendment rights."

    —Ellen Schrecker, Professor of History, Yeshiva University

  • "With clarity and insight Marjorie Heins brings to life a part of American history often overlooked despite its importance to our democracy today. The tension between individual freedom and national security is as taut as it ever has been. We have much to learn from our earlier mistakes in yielding too readily to claims of the latter. This compelling book, which brilliantly illuminates earlier Supreme Court decisions, and the people and events behind them, is a wonderful place to begin."

    —Margaret H. Marshall, former Chief Justice, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

  • "Marjorie Heins has given a human face to leading American controversies and cases about academic freedom, creatively integrating personal interviews and archival sources into her account of the developing law."

    —David Rabban, University Distinguished Teaching Professor, University of Texas School of Law

  • “A fascinating read. Heins creatively blends social and legal history to show how the right to academic freedom was forged out of the struggles and passions of America’s worst days of political repression, and why academic freedom is more important than ever today.”

    —Nadine Strossen, former president, American Civil Liberties Union; professor, New York Law School

  • "In this insightful and illuminating history of academic freedom and the Constitution, Marjorie Heins brings to life the characters, controversies, and cases that have framed the evolution of this critical and contentious realm of American liberty."

    —Geoffrey R. Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law, University of Chicago