Who Was Frank Wilkinson And Why is the House Science Committee Talking About Him?

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During the House Science Committee’s hearing on its Constitutional authority to issue subpoenas one name got bandied about quite a bit–Wilkinson.

The reference was to the 1961 Supreme Court case Frank Wilkinson v. United States, which still to this day defines the extent of Congress’s subpoena power. However, the Frank Wilkinson named in the suit happens to be our founder.

Little was said during the hearing about who Frank was or about the facts of the case, which was probably for the best since while it may be the law of the land the facts and circumstances of the case are not ones the committee and its supporters would want to cite in their favor.*

Frank had been an employee at the Los Angeles Housing Authority and was working on creating a very progressive, integrated public housing project in Chavez Ravine. Real estate developers didn’t like his project and the FBI was able to lend them a hand by giving them Frank’s FBI file. During an eminent domain hearing in which Frank was testifying as an expert witness, lawyers for developers, using Frank’s FBI file, began to ask him questions about his political affiliations.

When he refused to answer the questions he was disqualified as a witness, lost his job at the Los Angeles Housing Authority, and was subpoenaed by both the California Senate Committee on Un-American Activities and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). At each hearing, Frank refused to answer questions about his political affiliations stating that being compelled to do so violated his First Amendment rights. Many people who were called before HUAC invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, which didn’t carry legal consequences, but did lead to being blacklisted, lost jobs, and getting expelled from civil society organizations. When individuals cited the First Amendment, however, they were frequently cited for contempt and jailed.

It was the second time Wilkinson was summoned before HUAC that brought him to the Supreme Court. By 1958, Wilkinson had become an anti-HUAC activist. When HUAC held hearings in Atlanta, Georgia–aimed at intimidating the civil rights movement–civil rights activists Carl and Anne Braden asked him to come to help organize against the hearing.When Frank arrived in Atlanta he discovered that he had now been subpoenaed, which was remarkable given that the hearing was ostensibly about Communist activities in the South and prior to this incident Frank had never been to the South. The Committee claimed they were subpoenaing Frank, because they had information that he had been sent to the South for “the purpose of developing a hostile sentiment to HUAC.”

All of the witnesses except for Frank and Carl pled the Fifth Amendment; Frank and Carl cited the First Amendment in their refusal to testify. As a result they were charged with and convicted of contempt. Both men appealed their conviction all the way to the Supreme Court where they lost. Ultimately, Frank and Carl would serve nine months in federal prison.

While Frank may have lost before the courts, he ultimately won the political battle. The movement he helped to build successfully led to the abolition of HUAC. HUAC would go onto live in ignominy, forever synonymous with political repression, while Life Magazine would chose to celebrate Frank’s commitment to civil liberties in its Bill of Rights bicentennial issue.

Throughout the House Science Committee’s inquisition against environmental groups we have frequently cited our own history and the story of Frank Wilkinson as part of our opposition to their antics. Today by resting their claim to legitimacy on Wilkinson, a case in which the Supreme Court approved of one the worst abuses of the HUAC era, our fears have been proved true.

We had urged the House Science Committee to learn the lesson of HUAC and Frank Wilkinson.

They did apparently.

Just the wrong lesson.

*Whether the House Science Committee actions were constitutional, even taking Wilkinson into account is a separate story. We maintain, as do many other leading First Amendment scholars and advocates, that the House Science Committee’s actions are unconstitutional.



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