1958 June 30

Supreme Court: No Loyalty Oath for Veterans Benefits


In the case of Speiser v. Randall, decided on this day, the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a California law that denied tax-exemption for veterans benefits to those who qualified but refused to sign a loyalty oath. The law was part of the mania for loyalty oaths during the Cold War. The requirement of a loyalty oath had been added in 1954, at the height of the Cold War, and the oath read: “I do not advocate the overthrow of the Government of the United States or of the State of California by force or violence or other unlawful means, nor advocate the support of a foreign government against the United States in event of hostilities.”

Lawrence Speiser had served in the Army Air Force in World War II and, at the time of the case, was staff counsel for ACLU of Northern California. The Supreme Court appeal is believed to be the only time a plaintiff argued his own case before the Court — and he won! Speiser also represented Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the Howl censorship case, and won an acquittal on October 3, 1957.

The insidious aspect of all the loyalty oaths of the Cold War era was that they had nothing to do with any specific criminal or unprofessional conduct on the part of individuals required to sign them. Loyalty oaths were a special part of the mania during the anti-Communist frenzy of the Cold War. Unlike traditional oaths of office that involve an oath to uphold the Constitution and the law, 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.

Justice William Brennan for the Court: “. . . We hold that when the constitutional right to speak is sought to be deterred by a State’s general taxing program due process demands that the speech be unencumbered until the State comes forward with sufficient proof to justify its inhibition.”

See Lawrence Speiser with client Lawrence Ferlinghetti: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wtafsite/3976576112/

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