Dissent Is Patriotic. It’s Also a Powerful Antidote to Propaganda

“If you’re to be called a communist every time you stand up for basic American rights and freedoms, what’s likely to happen? Will you be silent? And if so, is this what the House Committee on Un-American Activities is really after — a silent, submissive, un-protesting America?” -Ernest Besig, “Operation Correction,” 1961

By Bethany Woolman, ACLU of Northern California

JANUARY 11, 2017 | 4:30 PM

Fifty-five years ago this January, the ACLU of Northern California was busy filling orders from across the country for copies of its recently produced film, “Operation Correction.” The film was a response to a piece of Red Scare propaganda, “Operation Abolition,” which was produced by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and depicted civil liberties activists in San Francisco as violent “communist agents” bent on destroying the fabric of America.

In those days, the federal government was deeply concerned with the political affiliations of ordinary Americans — if those affiliations were left-leaning.

My own grandfather, who was a World War II veteran and affiliated with the Communist Party in San Francisco, was under FBI surveillance. In 1950, he was fired from a good union job at a glass company after FBI agents paid his employers a visit and informed them of his history as a labor organizer before the war.

Our family bounced back, but the government’s post-war obsession with leftist thought and activism ruined the lives of many Californians.

Leading the charge was HUAC, which investigated suspected communists. Professors, teachers, journalists, writers, filmmakers, and activists all came under deep scrutiny.

Demonstrators outside SF City Hall, 1960. Image courtesy of the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

In 1960, HUAC came to San Francisco. They subpoenaed 48 Northern Californians — many of them teachers and professors — to testify at City Hall about their political affiliations. At this point, the tide of public opinion was already starting to turn against HUAC.

College students from UC Berkeley and Stanford mobilized to protest the hearings and take a stand for freedom of speech and freedom of association. The hearings, the protests, and the violent police crack-down were covered heavily by local news.

Inside City Hall, witnesses were called to testify — several of them represented by the ACLU. While the hearings dragged on, the San Francisco Police Department used firehoses to knock protesters down the marble steps of City Hall. Scores were arrested and charged.

Continue reading at the ACLU blog, Speak Freely.

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