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Priests of Our Democracy: the Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge

drawing by Bernard Kassoy

 "A masterpiece of legal  journalism ... magnificently negotiating the many tripwires of an intricate story ... .... Heins shows us a labyrinth of tangled lives that makes her story attention-grabbing and compelling."

- Professor Alan Wald, University of Michigan

U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“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

"Important and compelling ... Heins tells the stories of professors and teachers victimized by academic purges, while deftly navigating more than 50 years of legal battles and constitutional controversies."

- Stephen Rodhe, Los Angeles Review of Books

"Tracks the collision of politics, academic freedom, free speech, and the Constitution … Alongside her detailed and well-documented descriptions of the consequences of the chilling crackdowns on the academic world, Heins demonstrates her legal acumen in insightful elucidations of the constitutional underpinnings and Supreme Court decisions that have come to define the rights of educators. She also addresses how these standards have fared after 9/11 and under the current Chief Justice, John Roberts ... This compelling study demonstrates that precedent does not guarantee indefinite protection, and every generation must fight for its freedoms."

- Publishers Weekly

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

- Library Journal

"An excellent history of how the law has dealt with academic McCarthyism. ... One of the many virtues of Heins’s study is her emphasis on the collective costs of [political repression]. Lots of people lost their jobs, to be sure, but far worse was the narrowness of vision the repression brought to our political and academic worlds. ...

"Most academics mistakenly believe that their academic freedom has been protected by the First Amendment since the writing of the Constitution. For them, McCarthyism was just a passing aberration, a paroxysm of hysteria directed by a drunken senator from Wisconsin. They should read this book. So should anyone with a stake in education, 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."

- Andrew Feffer, History News Network

"Recounts the legal victories for civil liberties that, in most cases, came too late to repair lives and careers shattered by suspicions, largely unproven, that left-wing teachers were indoctrinating a generation of red-diaper babies. ... [Heins] makes a powerful case."

- Sam Roberts, New York Times

"Fact-filled, balanced, and yet thought-provoking. ... Political climate is a powerful thing, and Heins does an excellent job of mapping it. ...

'The virtue of Heins’s book is that it focuses on largely unknown, unsung teachers and librarians such as Harry Adler, Oscar Shaftel, Vera Shlakman, George Starbuck -- who complained about “them damn loyalty oaths” ...
Heins is passionate about her subject, but levelheaded, too. She doesn’t romanticize communism, communists, the Old or the New Left of which she once was a part. Her research is compelling, the richness of the details absorbing, and the photos endearing. ...

"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, Rag Blog & Truthout

"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

"Engrossing ... Heins explores how politics and jurisprudence were intertwined in Cold War reasoning that placed national security above considerations of First Amendment rights ... But this isn’t just a legal history. It is also a social history. We learn a great deal about the protagonists in the lawsuits as well as the investigators and their targets, teachers pressured into informing and the principled few who refused to comply. Heins has mined the archives and fills her pages with many gripping moments."

- Joan Wallach Scott, Academe

"Priests of Our Democracy sheds light on how the so-called second Red Scare played out within the educational system, particularly at New York City colleges and public schools. ... Heins details how [loyalty laws were] implemented with a vengeance in New York ... Many employees simply resigned to avoid the humiliation of a very public redbaiting campaign. ...

Heins’s book is a story in two parts. One part is a history of the great American fear, the legal and political anti-communist tyranny of the cold war decades; the other story is that of the human response to such fear, including the remarkable stories of educators who fought injustice, including Irving Adler, Oscar Shaftel, Vera Shlakman, George Starbuck, and Harry Keyishian. ...

Heins is a cautious analyst, knowing that the freedoms extended by the Warren Court could be pulled back by later decisions, especially given the strict conservatives who have been appointed by Republican presidents. She concludes her valuable study detailing how, over the last half-century, academic freedom continues to be challenged."

- David Rosen, Brooklyn Rail

"Extensively researched and well-written … Heins is sympathetic to Communist activists and sympathisers while rightly critical of the Stalinism of the leadership. There are touching accounts of what teachers risked and what many lost - but also encouragement in how many colleagues and students endangered their own careers in acts of solidarity. 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."

-Andrew Stone, Socialist Review (UK)


The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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