Sesquicentennial Memories

RIC Takes Lead in Abolition of Teacher Loyalty Oath
Sesquicentennial Memories

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.

I 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.

I shall 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.

I 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 of employment.

Although a small number of pre-service teachers had occasionally refused to sign the pledge throughout the years, it was not until February 20, 1964 that the controversy became a public issue. On that date a group of some 20 seniors at Rhode Island College refused to sign. With a swirl of news coverage surrounding the protest, the seniors appealed to the RIC Chapter 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 a preliminary 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 of 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.

The State Board of Education appointed a five-member special advisory committee chaired by Judge Florence K. Murray, at that time an Associate Justice of the Rhode Island Superior Court, to study the matter and to develop a recommendation for consideration by the Board. After some months of public testimony, study, and deliberation, the Committee reported back to the Board of Education with a recommendation of abolition. The Board accepted the recommendation of its special advisory committee and announced the decision on December 10, 1964 - without question a significant date in the history of Rhode Island College 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.

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