1956 April 30

Supreme Court Limits Subversive Activities Control Board, Anti-Communist Instrument


The Supreme Court on this day placed significant limits on the procedures of the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB). The SACB had been created by the 1950 McCarran Act (September 22, 1950), which required “Communist-action” and “Communist-front” organizations to register with the Attorney General and provide detailed information about its operations. In the decision on this day, the Court accepted the arguments of the Communist Party that in the SACB hearings against it some of the witnesses committed perjury. The Court did not rule on the constitutionality of the SACB itself. The decision (Communist Party v. Subversive Activities Control Board) sent the case –the registration of the Communist Party– back to the SACB with the direction that it clean up its procedures.

The SACB, like many anti-Communist and anti-subversives measures, was filled with procedural problems. As in this case, there was evidence that many witnesses, some of whom were regarded as “professional witnesses,” committed perjury. The category of  “Communist-front” organizations was undefined and essentially impossible to define. In the case of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), persons labeled as communists, or communist sympathizers, had no opportunity to confront their accusers and rebut the charges against them. Files on individuals compiled by the FBI were also not subject to review and did not allow the subjects of files to rebut the testimony against them.

In 1961 the Communist Party appeal returned to the Supreme Court, and in that case the Court upheld the constitutionality of the SACB and its procedures. Because of the challenges to the SACB and its procedures, and despite the 1961 decision upholding it, however, it never became an effectively functioning agency. It was finally abolished in 1973.

Other major attacks on the Communist Party during the Cold War included the Supreme Court decision in Dennis v. United States, unholding the constitutionality of the Smith Act and the convictions of the top leaders of the Communist Party (June 4, 1951), and the 1954 Communist Control Act, which outlawed the Party (August 24, 1954).

Learn more about the Cold War: Ellen Schrecker, Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (1998)

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