RIC Takes Lead in Abolition of Teacher Loyalty Oath
By Michael Smith
Today, as the nation engages in lively debate over certain
aspects of the Patriot Act, it may be appropriate to look back to an earlier
time when Rhode
Island College became a national leader in the debate over another First
Amendment issue: the teacher’s loyalty oath.
This December 10th marks
the 39th anniversary of a 1964 decision by Rhode Island’s State Board
of Education to abolish a 46-year old loyalty oath that had been a requirement
for certification of teachers since World
War I. It was an act that commanded national attention. The impetus for the
abolition, a landmark decision in defense of the First Amendment, came from
teacher education students at Rhode Island College.
The Rhode Island Teacher’s
Pledge of Loyalty, as it was officially known, was established in 1917 as
one of many reactions to what was then
perceived as a Bolshevik threat. The Oath read as follows:
"I, as a teacher
and citizen, pledge allegiance to the United States of America, to the State
of Rhode Island and to the American public school system.
I solemnly promise
to support the constitution and laws of Nation and State, to acquaint myself
with the laws of the State regarding public education,
and also the regulations and instructions of my official superiors, and faithfully
to carry them out.
I further promise to protect the schoolrights of my pupils,
to conserve the democracy of school citizenship, to honor public education
as a principle
of free government, to respect the profession of education as public service,
and to observe its ethical principles and rules of professional conduct.
pledge myself to neglect no opportunity to teach the children committed to
my care loyalty to Nation and State, honor to the Flag, obedience to law
and government, respect for public servants entrusted for the time being
with the functions of government, faith in government by the people, fealty
to the civic principles of freedom, equal rights and human brotherhood, and
the duty of every citizen to render service to the common welfare.
endeavor to exemplify in my own life and conduct in and out of school the
social virtues of fairness, kindness and service as ideals of good citizenship.
affirm, in recognition of my official obligation, that, though as a citizen
I have the right of personal opinion, as a teacher of the public’s
children I have no right, either in school hours or in the presence of my
pupils out of school hours, to express opinions that conflict with honor
to country, loyalty to American ideals, and obedience to and respect for
the laws of Nation and State.
In all this I pledge my sacred honor and subscribe
to a solemn oath that I will faithfully perform to the best of my ability
all the duties of the
office of teacher in the public schools."
While much of the language
may appear to be an innocuous expression of patriotic sentiment, certain
aspects were clearly contrary to the Constitutionally
guaranteed rights of all citizens and a chilling restraint upon conditions
Although a small number of pre-service teachers had occasionally
refused to sign the pledge throughout the years, it was not until February
1964 that the controversy became a public issue. On that date a group
20 seniors at Rhode Island College refused to sign. With a swirl
of news coverage surrounding the protest, the seniors appealed to the RIC
of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) for guidance.
The AAUP, recently reconstituted at the College, had been examining
the Loyalty Oath issue since May of 1963 and had, on February 17, 1964, endorsed
report advocating abolition of the pledge.
The movement to abolish
the pledge quickly gained some important allies, including the AAUP chapters
at Brown University and the University
Rhode Island, the local chapter of the American Federation of
Teachers (AFT), the
Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union
(ACLU), The Providence Journal, and then-Governor John H. Chafee.
Board of Education appointed a five-member special advisory committee
chaired by Judge Florence K. Murray, at that
time an Associate
the Rhode Island Superior Court, to study the matter and
to develop a recommendation for consideration by the Board. After some months
and deliberation, the Committee reported back to the Board
Education with a recommendation of abolition. The Board accepted
special advisory committee and announced the decision on
December 10, 1964 - without question a significant date in the history
of Rhode Island
and a milestone in defense of the First Amendment on behalf
of the teaching profession.
In each edition of What’s News at Rhode Island College during
the course of the College’s Sesquicentennial observance, Michael Smith,
Assistant to the President, presents a brief glimpse of an historic College
event that occurred at some point in the institution’s history corresponding
to the publication date of that particular edition of What’s News.
This is the eleventh installment. The author gratefully acknowledges the
assistance of Kenneth F. Lewalski, Professor Emeritus of History at Rhode
Island College. Dr. Lewalski was President of the RIC Chapter of the AAUP
during 1963-64 and was the author of Rhode Island Report: Teacher’s
Pledge of Loyalty Abolished, which was published in the Spring 1965 edition
of the AAUP Bulletin. Much of the information in this article was derived
from Professor Lewalski’s article.