Fifty years ago this academic year, U.B. library employee and noted poet George E. Starbuck began, with others, a long legal battle against the New York State “Feinberg Law” of 1949 that ultimately led to the Keyishian v. Board of Regents case and a Supreme Court ruling against the law in 1967. See the Finding Aid for the Richard Lipsitz Papers, 1964-1967 for more information.
The article below first appeared in the UB Spectrum on February 14, 1964.
Court Grants Injunction To George E. Starbuck
By NANCY LAURIEN
Mr. George E. Starbuck, noted poet, instructor of English and member of the UB library administration since October 1, 1963 is confronted with the possibility of dismissal from his position and ousting from the State University system because he chose to respond to one question on a Civil Service employment form with his own query rather than the customary “yes” or “no”.
The question is worded as follows: “Have you ever advised or taught, or were you ever a member of any society or group of persons which taught or advocated the doctrine that the Government of the United States or any political subdivisions thereof should be overthrown or overturned by force, violence, or any unlawful means?” It is part of the questionnaire administered, theoretically, to all state employees (although investigation by Mr. Starbuck has indicated that SOME not ALL new employees of UB hired since the state takeover have been requested to do so.) and is accepted as a legal matter of form in the hiring process, despite the fact that research by Mr. Starbuck and his lawyer, Mr. Richard Lipsitz, have failed to uncover any reference to the same in the state laws, codes or ordinances. Completion and acceptance of the form has also been thought to be a condition for employment, while, in fact, Mr. Starbuck has been on contract since last fall.
The poet’s answer to the question above entailed the following ideas: “I prefer not to answer, at least until the pertinence and necessity of such a question are properly explained to me.” The expected reaction of the university was a call for a hearing as guaranteed by the rules of the Board of Regents and Board of Trustees of the State University.
Instead, however, he was notified by the university of his dismissal as of Feb. 7, 1964. Mr. Starbuck appealed to Federal Court, where Judge John O. Henderson and the court issued a temporary restraining order preventing the state from firing him, and postponing the hearing and decision until March 2.
“The issue concerned, as in the Feinberg case, is not whether or not a faculty member has Communist or Fascist leanings, but to what extent our Constitutional right to free discussion and opinion can be abridged without its being part of our political system in name only,” stated a campus official.
Mr. Starbuck as the plaintiff in the impending case, charges, in reference to the Civil Service form question the words “advised” was vague, and “ever” questioned “beyond the right of legitimate inquiry.” Defendants in the case have been listed as The Board of Regents of the State university, the Board of Trustees of U.B., President Clifford C. Furnas and J.L. Murray, head of the State University system. The plaintiff has also charged violation of the First and Fourteenth Constitutional Amendments as well as a a breach of contract.
A recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters grant in recognition of his outstanding writing, Mr. Starbuck is well known in literary circles.
— UB Spectrum, February 14, 1964