McCarthyite Laws Targeting Leftists Are Still on the Books Across the Country

Communists were excluded from an Oklahoma Pride festival recently based on an old McCarthyite state law. The incident is a reminder of how easily the Red Scare’s mechanisms for state repression can be revived in 21st-century America.

Senator Joseph McCarthy (left) during the Army-McCarthy hearings, with Pvt. G. David Schine (center) and Roy Cohn (right), June 7, 1954, in Washington, DC. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

It’s LGBTQ Pride parade season all over America, but not for communists in Oklahoma City. This year, the Communist Party of Oklahoma was denied a booth at the Oklahoma City Pride festival because of a 1955 McCarthyite law declaring Communist Party membership illegal in the state.

The incident was troubling for obvious reasons: Pride celebrations put inclusivity of marginalized people at their heart. Even more alarming, with anti-communism on the rise, and with Donald Trump and other far-right politicians constantly calling for repression and violence against socialists and communists, many other states also have such laws on the books. The Right is ready and willing to use them. This coercive legal infrastructure stems from the McCarthy era as well as earlier Red Scares, but today’s political climate makes it newly relevant.

Oklahoma’s law makes membership in the Communist Party illegal, as well as membership in any group that might “advocate, abet, advise, or teach . . . any activities intended to overthrow, destroy or alter . . . the government of the United States, or of the state of Oklahoma . . . by force or violence.” It declares that members of such groups don’t have any rights.

Indeed, under the 1955 law, any individual who “contributes to the support of” the Communist Party could be fined $20,000 and sentenced to twenty years in prison. Note the broad wording of “contributes to the support of”: What does that include? Party membership? Financial support of a Communist Party campaign? Retweeting the Communist Party’s Martin Luther King Day or Fourth of July greetings? Signing a petition for a racial justice campaign that the party’s members are organizing? The law’s language could justify undemocratic crackdowns on a wide range of action or expression.

Historically, laws like this were often connected to efforts to repress the civil rights movement as well as communism, since the links between the two (both real and, in the fevered imagination of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and white supremacist Southern politicians, imagined) were so intertwined. Breathlessly proclaiming that civil rights agitation was being carried out by Moscow puppets, some states tried to ban the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Alabama did so successfully in 1956. Arkansas’s governor denied state employment to NAACP members through 1959. In 1958, the US Supreme Court ruled that the NAACP had a right to exist and that such laws violated Americans’ rights to freedom of association.

Courts have declared laws against communism unconstitutional. President Dwight Eisenhower’s Communist Control Act of 1954, which criminalizes Communist Party membership (and even, like Oklahoma’s law, support of the party), was deemed unconstitutional by a federal district court in Arizona in 1973. Before that, the US Supreme Court ruled the same way on Washington State’s law forbidding members of the Communist Party to work in the public sector or even to vote. California’s 1950 law requiring public employees to sign loyalty oaths disavowing radical beliefs was ruled unconstitutional by a six-to-one vote of state Supreme Court judges in 1967.

Despite such rulings, anti-communist laws remain on the books throughout the country. The Communism Control Act has never been repealed, and similar laws still exist in many states including New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Alabama, California, Washington, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Tennessee, and Virginia. Despite the Supreme Court ruling against Washington’s law, a 2012 legislative effort to repeal it failed. Despite the 1967 Supreme Court ruling against it, California’s law, too, has remained on the books.

Fifty years after that court decision, in 2017, then Alameda, California, assemblyman Rob Bonta ended up apologizing for even trying to repeal the law. Bonta told the Sacramento Bee at the time that the bill caused “real distress and hurt for honorable people. For that I am sorry.”

The court rulings haven’t eradicated the ability of modern-day McCarthyites to use the state bureaucracy to harass dissenters. In 2008, under California’s unconstitutional law, a Quaker teacher was fired from California State University, East Bay, for attempting to amend her loyalty oath.

In 1967, a New York law banning communists from teaching in the public schools was declared mostly unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The New York Times cheered the end of “the last legal vestiges in New York State of the unedifying era of witch hunts, guilt by association and loyalty oaths for teachers and other public employees.”

Yet in 2017, a half century later, the city investigated Brooklyn school principal Jill Bloomberg for “communist activities” after she complained about segregation and racial inequalities in the school system. Her diverse school, Park Slope Collegiate, shared a building with a predominantly white high school, which she said was given far more resources for sports. She was also critical of the racist overpolicing of her students, especially the presence of police officers and metal detectors.

Bloomberg was officially cleared of the communism charges but is no longer working at Park Slope Collegiate. The investigation, cheered on by the right-wing New York Post, was clearly intended to intimidate a righteous critic of the public-school system.

Despite these and many other stains on the United States’ civil liberties record, the country also has civil liberties traditions that have helped the Left fight such laws. In addition to the court rulings declaring the McCarthyite laws unconstitutional, some Americans have fought them at the legislative level. In 2003, Arkansas repealed its 1951 law requiring members of the Communist Party to register with the state police or face fines or prison, on the grounds that it was of “dubious validity under the First Amendment.” New Hampshire still has a law banning schools from teaching either communism or socialism, but Democrats in the state have attempted to roll back restrictions on what teachers can teach about issues like race and gender.

The Oklahoma City Pride incident should serve as a reminder of the lasting damage McCarthyism and previous Red Scares have inflicted on our political culture. It’s also a warning to be vigilant against anti-communism in all its current forms; leftists who aren’t communists might think such laws don’t apply to them, but they can be broadly interpreted, especially in this climate, with Trump using the word “communist” nearly every day to refer to progressives or even Democrats. And just last month, Florida senator Rick Scott issued a “formal travel advisory for socialists visiting Florida,” stating that “any attempts to spread the oppression and poverty that Socialism always brings will be rebuffed by the people of Florida.” The situation calls for solidarity among all left and progressive groups. As the far right increasingly mobilizes against us, those of us who believe in basic free speech rights will have to push back.