1952 October 17

California Supreme Court Invalidates University of California Loyalty Oath


A loyalty oath for University of California employees was a major controversy for many years, beginning in 1949. The Board of Regents finally adopted a required oath on April 21, 1950. That fall, 31 faculty were terminated for refusing to sign the oath. On this day, the California Supreme Court invalidated the law in Tolman v. Underhill. (The university oath was separate from, and in addition to, the Levering Act oath, which was required of all California public employees, signed into law by Governor Earl Warren on October 3, 1950.)

The lead plaintiff in Tolman v. Underhill was the noted psychologist Edward Tolman; in 1963, the university named its new Education-Psychology building on the Berkeley campus Tolman Hall in his honor. He was by then deceased but his widow was present for the dedication of the building. The insidious aspect of the University of California loyalty oath, and of all loyalty oaths during the Cold War, was that it had nothing to do with any specific criminal or unprofessional conduct on the part of individuals required to sign it.

Perhaps the best commentary on how the loyalty oath unnecessarily harmed talented professors involves the case of physics professor David Saxon. He was fired for not signing the loyalty oath in 1950, but went on to a distinguished career in science and, on July 1, 1975, was appointed President of the entire University of California system. He served as president until 1983. Clearly, in the long run Saxon survived being fired, but his career was at least temporarily affected, and many others who were fired or left the university voluntarily suffered more lasting harm.

Loyalty oaths were a special mania during the anti-Communist frenzy of the Cold War. Unlike traditional oaths of office, which involve an oath to uphold the Constitution and the country’s laws, Cold War loyalty oaths required people to swear that they were not members of the Communist Party and/or other radical parties or movements. Thus, they were oaths regarding membership and beliefs without reference to any actual or planned illegal action. The mania for loyalty oaths during the Cold War included the University of California oath (April 21, 1950); the Taft-Hartley Act, which required a loyalty oath for labor leaders (June 23, 1947); the Gwinn Amendment, which required a loyalty oath for federally funded public housing residents (July 5, 1952); and, in the 1960s, a loyalty oath for Medicare recipients, which was never enforced (February 13, 1967).

Read the Tolman decision: http://scocal.stanford.edu/opinion/tolman-v-underhill-32699

Read Professor Tolman’s 1950 letter to the University: http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/uchistory/archives_exhibits/loyaltyoath/symposium/tolman.html

Learn more about Edward Tolman’s contributions to psychology: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tev11a3Kqtk

Read: David Gardner, The California Oath Controversy (1967)

Learn more at a timeline on the California loyalty oath controversy: http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/collections/loyaltyoath/timeline_test.html

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