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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

1 Image John Thomas Watkins, photograph by the New York Times, June 17... View All Images
1 Image Watkins v. United States, Supreme Court of the United States,... View All Images
1 Image Testimony of John Thomas Watkins before the House Un-American... View All Images
1 Image Can You See Me Now?, cartoon by Herblock, June 18, 1957 View All Images