Loyalty Oaths in American Education

By Mark Walsh — February 29, 2008 1 min read
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A public college in California has fired a math teacher after six weeks on the job because she altered her mandatory state Oath of Allegiance form, the San Francisco Chronicle is reporting.

California State University-East Bay took the action against Marianne Kearney-Brown, a Quaker graduate student who was teaching remedial math on the campus, because she inserted the word “nonviolently” in front of the oath’s language calling on her to swear or affirm that she would “support and defend” the state and U.S. constitutions “against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” the newspaper reports.

The oath is required of all public employees in California, including teachers and other K-12 school employees. The newspaper says Kearney-Brown had similarly modified the state oath twice before over the last 15 years when she took jobs with two different school districts. In those instances, the districts accepted her modifications without incident, the newspaper says.

But the attorney for California State-East Bay tells the Chronicle that modifying the oath “is very clearly not permissible.”

The case is a reminder that some states still employ such loyalty oaths, which had their heyday during the Cold War.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided a spate of cases involving loyalty oaths from the 1950’s through the early 1970’s, including several involving teachers.

In 1961, in Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction, the justices struck down a Florida law that required teachers and other public employees to swear that they had never lent their “aid, support, advice, counsel or influence to the Communist Party.”

In 1964, the court struck down a Washington state loyalty oath for teachers as “unduly vague” in the case of Baggett v. Bullitt.

But in 1972, in Cole v. Richardson , the court upheld a Massachusetts loyalty oath for public employees that addressed future versus past conduct and spoke in general terms about opposing the overthrow of the government.

I am no expert on the history of such oaths in American education. Perhaps readers can provide some more perspectives.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.