On this date, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Adler v. Board of Education, 342 U.S. 485 (1952) (Douglas, J., dissenting). This case is notable because it is the first Supreme Court case to mention, in the dissent by Justice William O. Douglas, the concept of academic freedom.
Background. This case involved a New York state statute that essentially banned state employees from belonging to “subversive groups” – groups that advocated the use of violence in order to change the government. Under the statute, public employees were forced to take loyalty oaths stating that they did not belong to subversive groups in order to maintain their employment.Decision. The majority, laboring in the shadow of the Cold War and McCarthyism, upheld the state statute. However, referring to the process by which organizations were found “subversive,” Douglas said that because the law excluded an entire viewpoint without a showing that the invasion was needed for some state purpose, it impermissibly invaded academic freedom. He wrote:
[t]he very threat of such a procedure is certain to raise havoc with academic freedom….A teacher caught in that mesh is almost certain to stand condemned. Fearing condemnation, she will tend to shrink from any association that stirs controversy. In that manner freedom of expression will be stifled.
Fortunately, the premise of Adler has now been rejected – today, public employees, including teachers, have at least the same rights of expression as others (see Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 (1967)).