Blacklist

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Blacklist

A list of individuals or organizations designated for special discrimination or boycott; also to put a person or organization on such a list.

Blacklists have been used for centuries as a means to identify and discriminate against undesirable individuals or organizations. A blacklist might consist, for example, of a list of names developed by a company that refuses to hire individuals who have been identified as union organizers; a country that seeks to boycott trade with other countries for political reasons; a Labor Union that identifies firms with which it will not work; or a government that wishes to specify who will not be allowed entry into the country.

Many types of blacklists are legal. For example, a store may maintain a list of individuals who have not paid their bills and deny them credit privileges. Similarly, credit reports can effectively function as blacklists by identifying individuals who are poor credit risks.

Because the purpose of blacklists is to exclude and discriminate, they can also result in unfair and illegal discrimination. In some cases, blacklists have done great damage to people's lives, locking them out of employment in their chosen careers or denying them access to influential organizations. For example, if a labor union makes a blacklist of workers who refuse to become members or conform to its rules, it has committed an Unfair Labor Practice in violation of federal laws. Blacklists may also necessitate disclosure laws. State and federal fair credit reporting acts, for example, require that access to information in a credit report must be given, upon request, to the person to whom the information applies.

The most famous instance of blacklisting in U.S. history occurred in the entertainment industry during the 1940s and 1950s. Motion picture companies, radio and television broadcasters, and other firms in that industry developed blacklists of individuals accused of being Communist sympathizers. Those firms then denied employment to those who were named on the blacklists.

Blacklisting in Hollywood came about largely through the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was formed to investigate the activities of Communist, fascist, or other supposedly subversive and "un-American" political groups. Though the committee purported to be concerned with all types of potential subversion, after World War II ended in 1945 and relations with the Soviet Union subsequently deteriorated, it focused largely on Communism as a threat to the internal stability of the United States. In highly publicized hearings in 1947, 1951–52, and 1953–55 the committee sought to ferret out Communist sympathizers, conspiracies, and propaganda in the entertainment industry.

The HUAC hearings produced lists of individuals who either had been identified by witnesses as Communists or had refused to answer questions in appearances before the committee on the grounds of the First Amendment, which protects free speech and free association, or the Fifth Amendment, which protects against Self-Incrimination. Entertainment industry companies, fearing that they would be perceived by the public as pro-Communist if they employed people named in the hearings, then used these lists as blacklists. They refused to hire hundreds of actors, writers, and other entertainment professionals named in the HUAC hearings. Many promising careers were thus ended and much potentially edifying art was lost.

Some of the first victims of Hollywood blacklisting were known as the Hollywood Ten. In the October 1947 HUAC Hearings Regarding Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry, ten Hollywood screenwriters and directors—Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, and Dalton Trumbo—appeared under subpoena, or court order, before the committee. Each of them refused to answer questions regarding affiliation with the Communist party on the grounds that such questions violated their First Amendment right to privacy, or a right to remain silent, regarding their political beliefs or affiliations. The courts rejected this argument, found the Hollywood Ten guilty of Contempt of Congress, and gave them prison sentences lasting from six months to one year.

Nine of the ten were blacklisted in the film industry. (Ironically, the man conducting the 1947 HUAC hearings, Representative J. Parnell Thomas (R-N.J.), joined Lardner in federal prison in 1950 after Thomas was convicted of stealing government funds.)

Subpoenaed witnesses in these hearings faced a dilemma: on the one hand, they could invoke constitutional protection such as the Fifth Amendment, thereby implying current or former membership in the Communist party, putting themselves on the blacklist, and ending their chances of ever working in the entertainment industry again; on the other hand, they could "name names," or identify their friends as Communists, thereby betraying those close to them. In many cases, people were blacklisted for past political affiliations that they had abandoned. During the anti-Communist hysteria that gripped the nation in the 1950s, Congress's investigations into the Hollywood film industry went unchecked and the resulting blacklists destroyed numerous promising careers.

Further readings

Vaughn, Robert. 1972. Only Lies: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting. New York: Putnam.

Cross-references

Communism "House Un-American Activities Committee" (In Focus); Entertainment Law; Freedom of Association and Assembly; Freedom of Speech.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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