Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Stephen L. Carter — Why I Support Dissent: My Great-Uncle Who Wouldn't Name Names

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”

Dashiell Hammett and Alphaeus Hunton, on their way to jail in 1951.
Source: Bettmann
(Bloomberg View)

This year marks a peculiar anniversary for my family. Seventy-five years ago, the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a file on my great-uncle. Ten years after that, he was in a federal penitentiary for refusing to name names. The swirl of events of the intervening decade helps explain why I believe so strongly in the freedom of dissent, and why I find so repulsive efforts to restrict debate on controversial subjects, or to try to harass or intimidate those with whom we disagree into recanting or shutting up.

My great-uncle’s name was Alphaeus Hunton. He taught English at Howard University. He held a master’s degree from Harvard and a doctorate from New York University. His specialty was the Victorian poets, particularly Tennyson. And in 1941, due largely to his activism in the cause of anti-colonialism, the FBI opened a file on him.

Well, a lot of people had FBI files in those days. But Alphaeus, it seems, was special. Within months, agents were following him around, watching his mail, and quietly spreading the word that he was a subversive and should not be trusted or (especially) funded. They spoke to his neighbors and his employers. Because he taught at Howard -- a federal institution -- they tried to get him fired. J. Edgar Hoover signed off on a preventive detention order to be used to justify Alphaeus’s arrest in the event of national emergency. In the file is a poignant letter from my great-uncle, asking whether he is under surveillance. The bureau never answered, and the letter did not slow things down.

Read the full article HERE.