Victory at the Supreme Court: 50 years later, Harry Keyishian reflects on winning his case and striking a blow for the First Amendment

Interview by Dan Landau

keyishian


Photo at right by John Emerson


January 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court case, Keyishian v. Board of Regents. Named after Fairleigh Dickinson University’s own Harry Keyishian, professor emeritus of English, the case upheld the First Amendment rights for freedom of association.

In 1949, New York enacted the Feinberg Law, which prohibited state employees from being members of any “seditious” or “treasonous” organization and also required employees to sign an oath that they were not members of the Communist Party. When Keyishian and four others at what is now SUNY-Buffalo, refused to sign the oath, they were fired from their jobs. The five sued the university’s Board of Regents and in a 5-4 decision, the Court held that states cannot ban employees from being members of the Communist party.

As a professor at FDU, Keyishian taught classes on William Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, drama and film at the Florham Campus from 1965 to 2010. Since 1977, he has served as the director of FDU Press, the academic publishing arm of FDU. He has authored several books, most recently, Screening Politics: The Politician in American Movies, 1931-2001 in 2003, and the dozens of papers he has written have appeared in numerous journals and essay collections.

Recently, Keyishian gave an interview about the case:

 

FDU: This all began because you wouldn’t sign the loyalty oath. Why not?

HK: While I was attending Queens College in the early 1950s, several of my most esteemed professors were fired because of the Feinberg Law, against “radicals” in education. I saw it as stupid and cruel and wasteful of talent. I was deprived of great teachers. When I had the chance to bring that whole process — loyalty oaths, repressive policies, suppression of thought — to an end, I eagerly took it.

FDU: What was the historical context of the case and what was the political climate like when you began this?

HK: When I was hired at the University of Buffalo, it was a private institution and did not require loyalty oaths of its faculty. In 1962-3, UB became the State University of New York at Buffalo, as New York expanded its state universities, and faculty were required to sign the forms required of all government employees.

It was only early in the 1960s, and the Cold War was very much in evidence, but there was a distinct loosening of the 1950s political oppression and social conformity. Many were getting involved in civil rights activities, at great risk. Modern feminism was taking form and the very earliest manifestations of gay rights, “the sexual revolution,” Chicano and Latino activism, and the “counterculture” could be felt.   Politicians actually bragged about being “fighting liberals.” It was pretty obvious that significant transitions were happening in many areas. And there were the Beatles — fresh-faced, funny, and free-spirited.  

keyishianAbove: Harry Keyishian pictured in 1966, shortly after joining FDU and in 1997. (Photos from the FDU Archives)


 

FDU: How far removed was this from McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee?

HK: Sen. Joseph McCarthy died in 1957, so the worst of his excesses were long gone, but the House Un-American Activities was still conducting hearings. However, their power and influence had been eroded by Supreme Court decisions and, in turn, social attitudes, and they were not able to destroy lives and careers as they had earlier done. Blacklisted writers and actors were finding jobs again. HUAC, in fact, held hearings in Buffalo in 1964, but got little done and were shut down early because of student protests (they did not invite me).

FDU: From a day-to-day perspective, what was it like to be involved with a Supreme Court case? 

HK: I need to stress that by the early 1960s, loyalty oath legislation had very little support. Even the administrators in charge of enforcing the Feinberg Law, and firing people who refused to sign, did not believe in it. It was the law of the land, but I never heard anybody defend it. Only five of the 900 or so faculty at the University of Buffalo refused to sign, but many who did, signed “Under Protest.”

So far as the day-to-day, I can say that I have never felt more American in my life than while engaged in the litigation. It’s the most patriotic thing I have done (even more than two years of active duty in the Naval Reserve). We had great support from our colleagues, from students, and even from administrators, who were not happy about the requirement. The American Association of University Professors paid our legal fees, supplemented by donations from our colleagues. The entire academic community supported our efforts. So, the day-to-day was not exactly a hardship. I got some hostile mail of the “we-know-where-you-live” variety, but it was hard to get too scared about it. Also, my four other non-signing colleagues were distinguished scholars, as well as wonderful companions in the effort. It was often fun.

FDU: This case helped secure academic freedom for 50 years. What is it like to be a part of history?

HK: At the time, the feeling that the world had to be, and could be, changed for the better was very much in the air. Many people were turning to that effort seriously. We were just doing our bit where we were. We wanted to be part of the future.

Unfortunately, it can’t be said that academic freedom is secured. The ruling has been eroded over the years. I recently read an article titled “What’s left of Keyishian?” — meaning the decision, not me. It’s been eroded, so the fight for academic freedom has to continue, which is not the least surprising.

keyishianAbove: Harry Keyishian (at right) with Jill Kushner, an editor of The Literary Review, and Walter Cummins, editor emeritus and professor emeritus of English at FDU. The Literary Review, is a literary journal published quarterly by FDU. (Photo from the FDU Archives)


 

FDU: What do you feel about the state of academic freedom in the United States today?

HK: I see much danger ahead — our new president and his administration have no regard for the truth and give every sign of wishing to establish a repressive atmosphere in the free press and elsewhere — and the academic profession had better step up to protect what’s best in America — its traditions of free speech, honest thought, and progressive politics.  

FDU: Anything else that you would like to add?

HK: I'm proud of the fact that founding FDU President Peter Sammartino believed in academic freedom. He would hire faculty fired by other institutions — like the respected anthropologist Gene Weltfish, who was fired by Columbia University for supposed left-wing activities and who finished out her distinguished career at FDU. That's one nice tradition.


Editor’s note: For more about Harry Keyishian and his landmark Supreme Court case, see the 2014 profile in FDU Magazine.