Some still balk at watered-down loyalty oath

MICHELLE LOCKE, Associated Press Writer

Thursday, October 28, 1999


(10-28) 11:28 PDT BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) -- It's common knowledge that in the days of Joe Stalin -- and just before Joe McCarthy -- University of California administrators and faculty clashed mightily over a loyalty oath and the professors won.

What's not so well known is that UC employees are still required to swear fealty to the state, promising to defend the state and federal constitutions against ``all enemies foreign and domestic.''

Most breeze past the ritual -- which unlike the '50s oath doesn't require an anti-Communist pledge -- as just another piece of bureaucracy.

But a few balk at it.

``The vestige is still with us of loyalty oaths that some think served us poorly in the past,'' says Dr. Donald Cleveland, a professor of medicine at UC San Diego.

The oath that UC employees -- along with all state employees -- have to take stems from a state constitutional requirement that public officers swear to uphold the federal and state constitution.

In 1942, with World War II raging, the Legislature extended the oath to all state employees, said John Douglass, research fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley. UC regents subsequently passed a similar requirement.

Those oaths were a simple promise to uphold the constitution and ``faithfully discharge'' the duties of the office.

In 1949, furor erupted when then-university President Robert Gordon Sproul suggested that UC employees be asked to swear that they did not belong to any political parties that advocated the overthrow of the government. UC regents went one better and drafted an oath that in its final form had employees swearing that they weren't Communists.

Some refused to sign on principle. A furious battle ensued; 31 faculty and a number of others were fired.

In 1951, the California Supreme Court invalidated the regents' oath and reinstated the fired professors. However, that still left a new state oath, called the Levering Act, that had been passed by the Legislature in 1950.

The Levering Oath was a lengthy affair requiring employees to swear (or affirm) that they were not a member of any organization that advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government and had not been for the previous five years.

Some refused to sign and were fired, including seven at San Francisco State, said Douglass.

In 1967, the Supreme Court struck down much of the Levering Oath as unconstitutional.

That left the present incarnation.

Most sign the oath, which comes on the same page as a paragraph asserting UC patent rights, without a good deal of soul-searching.

``The oaths of the McCarthy Era were embedded in a campaign against certain political opinions, while the oath people sign today has no such connection, and hence is perceived as irrelevant to contemporary issues,'' said David Hollinger, Berkeley history professor.

Douglass said he sometimes gets questions about ``why one needs to sign this within the context of a democratic and free society,'' but most consider it a formality.

Observers say pushing a state constitutional amendment to get rid of the oath would mean raising a political firestorm for an issue few care deeply about -- ``Let sleeping dogmas lie,'' says Hollinger.

There are dissenters.

Former Berkeley student Seth Schoen lost a job as a campus computer consultant in 1998 when he refused to sign the oath, a practice he says ``should have been buried with Joe McCarthy.''

Matthew Belmonte also refused to sign after being invited to go to UC San Diego as a graduate student employee and eventually had to find another way to get funding in order to study there.

Now a lecturer at MIT, he is finishing his Ph.D. at Boston University, no oaths required.

Belmonte said the only rationale for the oath he got was that it ensures that state employees will help Californians in a disaster. ``I don't need to sign an oath to ensure that if there's an earthquake and somebody's trapped under a bit of concrete I'm going to try to help them,'' he says.

He views the oath as much more than a harmless anachronism.

``It seems to me quite dangerous to have an oath like that in an academic environment,'' he said. ``It's really a case of thought crime.''

Others sign the oath, but take advantage of a generally unadvertised loophole allowing them to add statements ``clarifying'' their beliefs.

Cleveland, for instance, objected to the undefined ``domestic enemies,'' which he calls ``an epithet all too frequently hurled at some of America's truest patriots.'' He wrote an addendum noting his belief that citizens, not government officials have the right to decide who is a domestic enemy. Defining a foreign enemy, he pointed out, would require an act of war.

Jimmer Enders, a graduate research assistant in biology, also at UC San Diego, wrote an addendum calling the oath ``an affront to the rights of every citizen and profoundly disturbing to my conscience.''

It was hard to tell how many professors elsewhere are required to sign loyalty oaths.

The University of Michigan, often used by UC as a comparison system, requires only a pledge to uphold the bylaws of the regents, said spokesman Joel Seguine. Private Stanford University, Berkeley's longtime rival, also has no such oath.

But Jonathan Knight, associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said there are a number of public universities that require oaths of one sort or another.

The professors' association opposes such requirements as potentially dangerous relics of a ``dark period in American history.'' In the 1998 case of a professor who declined a position at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, rather than sign, Knight urged administrators to drop the ``ugly heritage.''

UC officials say they don't have the option of dropping their oath.

``This is something that's imposed on every employee of the state of California and we're not permitted to pay an employee who does not take it,'' said spokeswoman Mary Spletter.

Routine or not, dissenters believe the oath should be jettisoned.

``If I'm an anarchist, am I going to have any qualms about signing?'' Belmonte asked. ``It seems to attack people of conscience in particular. It strikes me as an absurd legacy of the Cold War.''

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