March 3

This Day in History

Cold War

Mar 3, 1952:

Supreme Court rules on communist teachers

In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a New York state law that prohibits communists from teaching in public schools. Coming at the height of the Red Scare in the United States, the Supreme Court decision was additional evidence that many Americans were concerned about possible subversive communist activity in their country.

The New York state statute—called the Feinberg Law—banned from the teaching profession anyone who called for the overthrow of the government; the law was specifically aimed at communists. Several other states adopted similar measures. In New York, a group of teachers and parents challenged the law, and eventually the case went to the Supreme Court. The majority decision upholding the Feinberg Law, declared the New York Times, supported the belief that "the state had a constitutional right to protect the immature minds of children in its public schools from subversive propaganda, subtle or otherwise, disseminated by those 'to whom they look for guidance, authority and leadership.'" The dissenting opinion from justices William O. Douglas, Hugo Black, and Felix Frankfurter charged that the New York statute "turns the school system into a spying project." In New York, the Teachers Union vowed to continue fighting the law. Eight teachers had already been dismissed under the provisions of the law and as many others were facing hearings.

The Supreme Court decision was a barometer of the national temper. In the years preceding the case, former State Department official Alger Hiss had been convicted of perjury in connection with his testimony concerning his involvement with the Communist Party; Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been convicted and sentenced to death for passing atomic secrets to the Soviets; and Senator Joseph McCarthy had made a career out of searching for communists in the U.S. government. By 1952, many Americans were convinced that communist agents and supporters were actively at work within the United States, and that their forces permeated every aspect of American life. The Feinberg Law remained in force until another Supreme Court decision in 1967 declared most of its provisions unconstitutional.

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