Stamler v. Willis Historic Case

At a Glance

Date Filed: 


Case Description 

Stamler v. Willis is a civil action in which the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) challenged the constitutionality of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the subpoenas it issued.

In the 1960s, particularly after HUAC produced Operation Abolition, a film meant to justify the committee’s existence which inadvertently underscored its high-handed tactics, people increasingly questioned the legitimacy of HUAC and its purposes.

HUAC arrived in Chicago in 1965 and began to subpoena residents including school teachers, government employees, and people who were active in social change. Chairman Edwin Willis’ own testimony showed that HUAC was looking for Communist activity in anti-Vietnam War, housing, youth, civil rights, and political organizations.

One Chicagoan who was subpoenaed was prominent and internationally renowned researcher in heart disease prevention and director of the Heart Disease Control Program, Dr. Jeremiah Stamler.

CCR attorneys in Stamler modeled their argument on the Dombrowski case in which CCR founder Arthur Kinoy was the lead attorney. The Stamler suit charged that the Act which created HUAC was unconstitutional because it was overbroad and vague, and claimed that the Committee functioned with no legislative purpose.

Though Judge Julius Hoffman denied the civil suit, CCR attorneys appealed the case, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals determined on August 5, 1969, that “Congress has no more right, whether through legislation or investigations conducted under an over-broad enabling Act, to abridge the First Amendment freedoms of the people, than do the other branches of the Government.”

Civil actions were filed on behalf of several of the organizations and individuals whose records had been subpoenaed. For the first time in many years, subpoenas issued by congressional investigating committees were actually blocked by the federal courts because they violated the First Amendment rights of the organizations and their members.