Loyalty Oaths

Loyalty Oaths: Established Rights

Loyalty Oaths: Protected Speech

Loyalty Oaths: Associational Memberships

Loyalty Oaths: Vague Language

Loyalty oaths are administered as a condition to public employment or entrance into the practice of a given occupation, such as teaching. A teacher loyalty oath is a promise to uphold the constitutions and laws of a jurisdiction. Typically, in cases involving education law, loyalty oaths involve state laws that mandate adherence to the federal and state constitutions and laws. For instance, the language of the oath may state,

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America and the Constitution of the State of [insert state name] and that I will oppose the overthrow of the government of the United States of America or of this State by force, violence or by any illegal or unconstitutional method. (Cole v. Richardson, 1972)

In many instances, loyalty oaths were passed into law as a reaction to heightened concerns over threats to national security. The balance between the sensitive nature of individual rights and governmental interests limits the acceptable application and wording of loyalty oaths. Stated another way, constitutional protections set parameters regarding to whom loyalty oaths apply and what considerations exist in the crafting of the loyalty oath language.

The difficulty with loyalty oaths rests in the construction of constitutionally permissible language. In other words, questions emerge over how public employers can adopt loyalty oaths that do not offend the constitutional rights of employees. In attempting to address this question, the courts have created constitutional doctrines to assess the legality of loyalty oaths. Through a series of decisions, the Supreme Court established four parameters: Loyalty oaths (1) may not infringe on established constitutional rights, (2) may not prevent or chill protected speech, (3) may not limit associational memberships and activities or presume subscription to beliefs based on associational affiliations, and (4) may not contain vague language so that a person of “common intelligence” cannot decipher their meaning. These parameters are discussed further in this entry.

Jeffrey C. Sun

See also Due Process; Due Process Rights: Teacher Dismissal; Keyishian v. Board of Regents; Pledge of Allegiance; Political Activities and Speech of Teachers

Further Readings

  • Newsom, N. W. (1954). Teacher loyalty and related issues. Peabody Journal of Education, 32, 174–179. 
  • Schrecker, E. W. (1986). No ivory tower: McCarthyism and the universities. New York: Oxford University Press. 

Legal Citations

  • Cole v. Richardson, 405 U.S. 676 (1972). 
  • Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction, 368 U.S. 278 (1961). 
  • Elfbrandt v. Russell, 384 U.S. 11 (1966). 
  • Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 (1967). 
  • Wieman v. Updegraff, 344 U.S. 183 (1952).