On June 1, 1964, the United States Supreme Court strikes down Washington laws requiring state employees to take loyalty oaths. The loyalty oath statutes are challenged by more than 60 faculty members, staff, and students of the University of Washington in a case organized by the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the UW chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). The Court rules that both a 1955 statute requiring all state employees to swear they are not "subversive persons" and a 1931 statute requiring teachers to swear to promote respect for government institutions are unconstitutionally vague and violate due process.
Loyalty oaths were common during the Cold War era. Between 1947 and 1956, 42 states and more than 2000 local jurisdictions adopted laws requiring such oaths from public employees. In 1951, the Washington Legislature imposed a loyalty oath requirement for all state employees. In 1955, the statute was amended to require employees to swear that "I am not a subversive person." According to the law, a "subversive person" was:
"any person who commits, attempts to commit, or aids in the commission, or advocates, abets, advises or teaches by any means any person to commit, attempt to commit, or aid in the commission of any act intended to overthrow, destroy or alter, or to assist in the overthrow, destruction or alteration of, the constitutional form of the government of the United States, or of the state of Washington, or any political subdivision of either of them by revolution, force, or violence; or who with knowledge ... becomes or remains a member of a subversive organization."
"Subversive organization" was defined in the same terms used in the definition of subversive person, and the law also specifically declared the Communist Party a subversive organization.
Civil libertarians opposed the loyalty oath requirement, particularly on university campuses, where they believed that having to swear one was not “subversive” suppressed academic freedom and led to conformity of thought. Soon after the 1955 amendment was enacted, the Washington ACLU brought its first challenge to the loyalty oath statute on behalf of two University of Washington professors, Howard Nostrand (Romance Languages) and Max Savelle (American History). The ACLU obtained an injunction prohibiting enforcement of the loyalty oath while the case was pending. However, in 1962, after seven years of complicated legal maneuvering in state and federal courts, the United States Supreme Court dismissed that case and dissolved the injunction.
Once the injunction was dissolved, the University Board of Regents announced in May 1962, that all employees were required to sign the oath by October 1, 1962, and that any who did not would be dismissed as of October 31, 1962. Teaching faculty were also required to sign an additional oath, based on a 1931 statute applicable to all teachers, swearing to "support the constitution and laws of the United States of America and of the state of Washington, and ... by precept and example promote respect for the flag and the institutions of the United States of America and the state of Washington, reverence for law and order, and undivided allegiance to the government of the United States" (RCW 9.81.010).
In response to the Regents' announcement, on June 6, 1962, the ACLU and the UW chapter of the American Association of University Professors brought a new lawsuit in federal district court that challenged both loyalty oaths and ultimately led to the Supreme Court's 1964 decision. The suit was brought as a class action, which more than 60 UW faculty members, staff, and students eventually joined as plaintiffs. The defendants were the members of the Board of Regents, University President Charles E. Odegaard (1911-1999), and Washington Attorney General John J. O'Connell. Attorneys Byron Coney, Kenneth MacDonald (1917-2012), a longtime ACLU member and past president of the Washington chapter, and Arval Morris, who was also a UW law professor, represented the plaintiffs in district court.
The case became known as Baggett v. Bullitt, because the first named plaintiff was mathematics professor Lawrence W. Baggett, and the first named defendant was Board of Regents member Dorothy Bullitt, the well-known Seattle civic and business leader who founded and ran King Broadcasting Company. Among the other faculty challenging the oaths were Professors Nostrand and Savelle, who had brought the earlier challenge, historian Giovanni Costigan, geographer Rhoads Murphey, and philosophy professor Melvin Rader, who was president of the Washington ACLU chapter in 1961-62 and earlier had successfully fought the Washington Legislature's Fact-finding Committee on Un-American Activities (known as the Canwell Committee, after its chairman, Representative Albert F. Canwell of Spokane).
A three-judge panel of the district court granted an injunction against enforcement of the statutes by the University, so even after the October 1962, deadlines no oaths were required and no employees were dismissed. On February 9, 1963, the district court panel rejected the challenges to the loyalty oath laws, but kept the injunction in effect pending an appeal to the Supreme Court.
ACLU attorneys Ken MacDonald and Arval Morris brought the appeal in the Supreme Court, while Deputy Attorney General Herbert Fuller argued for the defendants. The Court heard argument on March 24, 1964, and issued its decision striking down both statutes by a 7-2 vote on June 1, 1964.
The Court held that "the oath requirements and the statutory provisions on which they are based are invalid on their face because their language is unduly vague, uncertain and broad." For example, the Court noted that under the 1955 statute, it might be subversive just to teach known Communist Party members or participate in international academic conferences that included Communist scholars, while under the 1931 statute, it could be deemed disloyal to criticize the design of the state flag, or the work of a judge, court, commission or other government institution. The Court concluded that the laws violated due process and were unconstitutional.
On the day of the ruling, Morris, the ACLU attorney and law professor, told The Seattle Times that the decision “reaffirmed an honored tradition in American law,” which he defined as the “conviction that governmental coercion of opinion is a mistake.” Following the decision in the Washington case, similar loyalty oaths in other states were also declared unconstitutional.
Washington's last loyalty oath, which was imposed on candidates for public office, was invalidated by the Washington Supreme Court in a 1974 case handled by ACLU attorney John Darrah, a former Washington ACLU Executive Director and Board member who later became a King County Superior Court judge.