Background: On January 5, 1954, Paul M. Sweezy was summoned to appear before New Hampshire attorney general Louis C. Wyman for inquiries into Sweezy’s political associations. Under a 1951 New Hampshire statute, the state attorney general was authorized to investigate “subversive activities” and determine whether “subversive persons” were located within the state. Wyman was especially interested in information on members of the Progressive Party, an organization many politicians suspected of nurturing communism in the United States.
Sweezy said he was unaware of any violations of the statute. He further stated that he would not answer any questions impertinent to the inquiry under the legislation, and that he would not answer questions that seemed to infringe on his freedom of speech. Sweezy did answer numerous questions about himself, his views, and his activities, but he refused to answer questions about other people. In a later inquiry by the attorney general, Sweezy refused to comment about an article he had written and about a lecture he had delivered to a humanities class.
When Sweezy persisted in his refusal to talk about others and about his lecture, he was held in contempt of court and sent to the Merrimack County jail. The Supreme Court of New Hampshire affirmed the conviction, and Sweezy appealed.
Decision: The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction. The basis for the reversal was the New Hampshire statute’s improper grant of broad interrogation powers to the attorney general and its failure to afford sufficient criminal protections to an accused. The Court commented strongly upon the threat such a statute posed to academic freedom:
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.