Loyalty Oaths: Vague Language
Fourth, courts have indicated that loyalty oaths may not contain such vague language that its interpretation may deter legitimate acts and seemingly approve unintended, illegal acts. Based on a standard set by the Supreme Court, a person of “common intelligence” must be able to decipher the loyalty oath’s meaning. In Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction (1961), a Florida loyalty oath law required public employees to attest that they did not and will not “lend . . . aid, support, advice, counsel or influence to the Communist Party” (p. 280). The statutory language included many conceivable acts that some may interpret as acceptable and others may not.
Further, the Court pointed out that the problem becomes more complex when one factors in the recent past. Not long before the case arose, the Communist Party had legal candidates on the ballot, and the Communist Party had legitimately endorsed candidates from other parties. To this end, the Court posed the questions of whether these activities precluded individuals from taking the oath or made oath takers subject to perjury. To the Court, these facts contextualized reasons to explain why misinterpretation occurs easily and questions of constitutional vagueness are asserted in these cases. As such, the Court concluded that interpretations and subsequent behaviors caused by loyalty oaths from an unconstitutionally vague statute subjected individuals to “risk of unfair prosecution and the potential deterrence of constitutionally protected conduct” (Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction, p. 279). With these possibilities, the Court struck down loyalty oaths that contained unconstitutionally vague language because they tend to violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments.