Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Feinberg Law Vs. Free Speech



© 2024 Luke T. Bush


Colleges and libraries. Most are ramparts of free speech. Local politician Benjamin F. Feinberg was instrumental in the creation of the New York State university system. In his honor the Plattsburgh State University library bears his name.

How ironical.

Feinberg was a Republican member of the New York State Senate serving from 1933 through 1949 during the time of the second Red Scare. The Cold War followed World War II, great tension between the United States and the Soviet Union (Russia). Events like the Soviets occupying Eastern Europe produced fears of spreading communism.

The "commie" boogeyman helped a politician manipulate voters to rally around him. There was justified concern about Soviet spies operating in the United States but it lead to overreaction. Skeptics joked about checking for communist agents under a bed with a flashlight before falling asleep.

You didn’t like someone? Then besmirch them with the commie label. Many believed all communists and fellow travelers (people sympathetic to communism ideals) were involved in a vast conspiracy to overthrow US democracy. It didn’t matter if loyal Americans embraced communist beliefs, trying to work peacefully within the nation’s political structure for change.

And if a person advocated for socialism he was only partly red: they were a pinko.

In 1949 Feinberg sponsored a bill to stamp out communism in the public school system through the NYS regents. Under his proposal any individuals perceived not properly conforming to American values would be placed under surveillance, noting their reading materials and attendance at certain political gatherings. Also there was concern how teachers would affect impressionable young minds. They had to sign a loyalty oath or be fired.

This bill became law, leading to the ouster of some teachers. Thirty-three teachers in 1955 went to trial and were fired. Facing pressure from the law 277 teachers resigned.

In 1962 the University of Buffalo became part of the State University of New York. A new employment requirement meant teachers and other employees had to sign a loyalty oath under the Feinberg Law. Five UB employees opposed the oath requirement in federal court. In 1967 the Supreme Court struck down the Feinberg Law, citing individual rights.

My research hasn’t found any statements by Feinberg indicating he had second thoughts about the law. Either way the irony remains.

ADDENDUM: While riling up his base during his third run for the White House Republican Donald “The Big Lie” Trump used the terrifying term “communists.” Citizens who don’t learn from history are doomed.