1954 February 5

Harvard Law Dean Defends Fifth Amendment


Erwin Griswold, Dean of Harvard Law School, on this night defended the Fifth Amendment as “a sound provision of our basic law.” The Fifth Amendment was under heavy attack as many people called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and other investigative bodies refused to answer questions, citing their Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. As a result, they were labeled “Fifth Amendment Communists,” and people were in effect regarded as guilty of being “subversive” for exercising their constitutional right. Many people lost their jobs after they invoked the Fifth Amendment. A New York City history teacher, for example, was fired on April 30, 1954, for taking the Fifth Amendment before a Senate investigating committee. And on June 24, 1954 the New York State Bar Association recommended that any member who took the Fifth be disbarred. As a result, there were a number of proposals to amend the Fifth Amendment, a development that prompted Dean Griswold’s remarks on this day.

The result of the controversy over the Fifth Amendment was a federal immunity law, enacted on August 20, 1954, which allowed investigators to grant immunity to uncooperative witnesses and then compel them to testify about the events under investigation.

It was a measure of the intensity of the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War in the mid-1950s that so many Americans, including prominent attorneys, should proposed disbarring a lawyer for exercising one of the most important rights in American law.

Read Dean Griswold’s book: Erwin N. Griswold, The 5th Amendment Today: Three Speeches (1955)

Learn more about the ACLU in the Cold War and other Times of National Crisis: https://www.aclu.org/aclu-history-rooting-out-subversives-paranoia-and-patriotism-mccarthy-era

Learn more: Leonard Levy, Origins of the Fifth Amendment: The Right Against Self-incrimination (1968)

Learn more about HUAChttp://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/huac

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