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John Thomas Watkins, photograph by the New York Times, June 17, 1957

Labor union organizer John Thomas Watkins, on probation with a suspended sentence of a year in prison for contempt of Congress, appealed his conviction. The case reached the Supreme Court, which decided in his favor.

© 1957 The New York Times. All rights reserved. Used by permission and protected by the Copyright Laws of the United States. The printing, copying, redistribution, or retransmission of this Content without express written permission is prohibited.

John Thomas Watkins, photograph by the New York Times, June 17, 1957

Constitutional Rights v. Congressional Powers

From the 1930s through the 1950s, Congress intensively investigated perceived political radicals. The House Committee on Un-American Activities focused on suspected communists in the film industry, universities, and labor organizations. Some witnesses refused to testify, pleading the Fifth Amendment—the right not to incriminate oneself. In 1954 labor organizer John Thomas Watkins directly challenged a subcommittee’s right to demand information not pertinent to the investigation. Watkins was convicted of contempt of Congress, but in 1957 the United States Supreme Court decided in his favor, limiting Congress’s investigative powers.

The Bill of Rights is applicable to congressional investigations, as it is to all forms of governmental action

Chief Justice Earl Warren, Watkins v. United States, 1957