Lawmakers are working to rid state law books of an outdated, Red Scare-era statute allowing the government to go after "subversive" people and organizations.

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A new House bill seeks to take a holdover of the Red Scare off the state’s law books more than 60 years after it was introduced.

The 1951 statute imposes strict penalties on “subversive” people and organizations, with an emphasis on communism. It gave the government broad power to shut them down and limit what a person convicted of subversion could do — for example, vote or hold office. With “reasonable” evidence, any state employee deemed subversive could be fired, according to the statute.

It dates to a time when U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy waged his infamous anti-Communist campaign. The late state Rep. Albert Canwell, a Republican from Spokane, headed up a committee seeking out “un-American activities.” The Canwell Committee became notorious for targeting University of Washington professors in its quest to rout out Communists.

Now six House lawmakers hope to get the Red Scare specter out of Washington legislation for good.

“I don’t think we should have unconstitutional laws on the books even if they’re not being enforced,” said Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, who’s sponsoring the bill.

The law was amended in 1955 to force state employees to pledge that they were not “subversive,” but the oath was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1964 after UW faculty, staff and students challenged it.

Washington state had been known as a liberal haven, “the soviet of Washington,” as Postmaster General James Farley supposedly quipped in the ’30s.

Not such a laughing matter for the victims of the Canwell Committee, some of whom were fired or discredited. Canwell was unapologetic, according to The Seattle Times archives, telling a reporter in 1998 that the UW professors he had targeted “got what they deserved. Me.”

Fitzgibbon called his initiative a cleanup bill, and he questioned why it’s taken so long to get the earlier legislation removed.

Lark Turner: 206-464-2761 or