A week after she began teaching at the California State University in East Bay, math teacher Marianne Kearney-Brown filled out some leftover paperwork, among the documents an oath of allegiance to the constitution. California requires its elected officials and public employees to sign, which she did. But where it required her to, quote, "support and defend the United States and the state constitutions against all enemies, foreign and domestic," the Quaker drew an asterisk next to the word defend and wrote nonviolently. .TEXT: An uproar ensued, and Kearney Brown lost her job. She's been rehired since, but the incident raises questions about the long history of the loyalty oath. Is it reasonable to ask state workers to protect and defend the constitution or is this a dangerous relic of McCarthyism?
We want to hear from those of you who have been asked to take a loyalty oath. Tell us why you did or didn't sign. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you could tell us your story on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
In a moment, we'll talk with an expert on these oaths, but first, Marianne Kearney-Brown joins us. She's been rehired at Cal State, where she's a graduate student and joins us by phone from Hayward, California. Nice to have you on the program today.
Ms. MARIANNE KEARNEY-BROWN (Mathematics Graduate Student, Cal State East Bay): Oh, thank you very much. It was actually - I didn't find leftover paperwork. They didn't present me with the paperwork until after I'd been working for 10 days into my hiring.
CONAN: But this wasn't the first time you'd seen this loyalty oath. You'd been a public school teacher before, and it was in there.
Ms. KEARNEY-BROWN: Yes, the first time - the first time I was presented with it, I just panicked, and I told the woman, you know, I'm a Quaker, and we have issues with signing oaths. And she took it back and wrote, Quaker, doesn't sign oaths and put that into my file. And in subsequent school districts, I would add the word "nonviolently" and maybe some raised eyebrows, but there was never any big - you know, there was never any opposition to it.
CONAN: And what happened when you tried to insert that word when you were hired at the University of Cal State East Bay?
Ms. KEARNEY-BROWN: It really upset the human resource workers, and I can understand their position. They are - their job is to collect these oaths and make sure that people sign them, and they were very upset. And they said it wasn't acceptable, and it was not a pleasant situation for them or for me. So I left, and I thought, you know what, I'll just work for free. And I didn't want to deal with it.
CONAN: And it nevertheless became an uproar.
Ms. KEARNEY-BROWN: Yeah, they called me back, and the same thing happened. And then, I tried to get clarification on it, and, in an email from a human resources person, they told me that I was required by law to sign it without alteration. And they said that my addition was incompatible and inconsistent with the oath.
Now, if nonviolence was incompatible and inconsistent with the oath, I couldn't sign it no matter what. They gave me the option of inserting like a - adding a personal statement to the file. But if nonviolence is inconsistent, I mean, I couldn't sign it. And that's where the problem really - that's where everything exploded, I think.
CONAN: And eventually, what kind of compromise did you reach?
Ms. KEARNEY-BROWN: Eventually, they fired me. And then I - my boyfriend was really - he was like, this is an outrage! Alert the media! And I said, you know, I don't think the media is going to care. But I sent an email to the San Francisco Chronicle, and they wrote about it. And actually, I apparently touched a nerve with a lot of people, and a lot of people emailed the university, and then it became more than just one person refusing to sign an oath, which I wasn't. I signed it twice, but I did have that word in there.
And then the attorney general issued a statement that said that the university was correct in requiring that I sign the oath because it is the law, but that violence is not required at all. And that's the piece that I needed to be able to sign it with no mental reservations, and the attorney general provided that.
CONAN: And, should there be a new attorney general two weeks from now, might that change your mind again?
Ms. KEARNEY-BROWN: That was the thing - that was the thing that did kind of bother me. Because Jerry Brown is our attorney general, and, when he said obvious, it was like obviously the oath means this. I thought, you know, it doesn't seem that obvious to me.
But now that I am hired, and I have that statement in my folder, I feel like, for now, in the situation, it's no longer an issue, but I do foresee it perhaps being an issue when I go back out into the world and try to get a job, you know, on public school education.
CONAN: Well, congratulations on getting your job back.
Ms. KEARNEY-BROWN: OK, thank you.
CONAN: Marianne Kearney-Brown, a graduate student at California State University in East Bay, with us by phone from Haywood, California. Let's see if we can get a caller on the line, and this is Jeff. Jeff calling us from Palo Alto in California.
JEFF (Caller): Yes, hi. I took the oath about, maybe six years ago, when I became a notary in Santa Clara.
CONAN: And did it bother you at all?
JEFF: It actually didn't. It was funny because I remember taking it, and I sort of took it very seriously. But, at the same time, I didn't really see the constitution resting on the shoulders of a notary, so I figured it was OK for me to take it. I know a lot of my friends who were notaries at the time, and they kind of thought it was a joke.
But I also considered the language kind of left it up to me to define defend and enemies. It didn't really give, you know, groups or anything like that, so I did take it seriously. But at the same time, I didn't really see that as going to affect my job.
CONAN: And basically unenforceable?
JEFF: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the language is so vague, and, since politicians themselves couldn't really define who an enemy of the constitution was and kind of argue with each other about it, you know, it seemed like it was kind of up in the air.
CONAN: And in...
JEFF: I didn't mind it, but I did take it seriously.
CONAN: And, in your subsequent work as a notary, have you ever been called upon to defend the constitution of the State of California and the United States?
JEFF: Not a single time, not a single time.
CONAN: Well Jeff, we stand assured that you will, if called.
JEFF: All right. Thank you very much.
CONAN: Thanks very much.
JEFF: Bye bye.
CONAN: Michael Olivas is director of the Institute of Higher Education, Law, and Governance at the University of Houston. He joins us now by phone from his office. Nice to have you with us today.
Dr. MICHAEL OLIVAS (Law Center, University of Houston): Thank you very much.
CONAN: And what's the history of loyalty oaths? Do they date back to the 1950s and the McCarthy period?
Dr. OLIVAS: Well, they actually go back even further than that. Bertrand Russell, for example, was turned down for a faculty job in the public colleges in the 1940s in New York. In part, the argument had been made that he was so extraordinary and such an illustrious teacher and so convincing that he might, through his writings, where he had advocated cohabitation before marriage, he might be an influence on these tender mercies of students and so...
CONAN: And look what's happened. We have co-ed dorms now.
Dr. OLIVAS: Well, yeah. He would be surprised, just as my mother would be.
CONAN: I'm sure. Why does the State of California have a loyalty oath?
Dr. OLIVAS: Well, these are vestigial, and it's a little hard to imagine a notary, who just spoke, for example, saying he doesn't uphold the constitution. In fact, every time he notarizes something, he upholds the integrity of the document, which is what the oath taking suggests.
I think that it's important to distinguish between those kinds of oaths that have been struck down historically, that used membership in Communist organizations or other totalitarian groups and so forth as a criterion, so they really did count, as opposed to these kind of general oaths that only require you to comply with law.
CONAN: Well, defend the constitution, it sounds like a call to arms.
Dr. OLIVAS: Well, it isn't at all a call to arms, and courts have held otherwise. And, just as there are persons who can participate and fulfill their oaths to military service when called upon, of course only men, when called upon, can discharge that duty in nonviolent ways. Signing this oath doesn't require you to take up arms. It is something of a leap to suggest that.
CONAN: Is California the only state that has the loyalty oath still on the books?
Dr. OLIVAS: Well, I'm not certain. I don't keep up with all of these. I think that there are some other states that do have, again, these vestigial kinds of oaths, and they haven't just been in this kind of thing. There were other public programs, such as veterans, for example, who had to declare this kind of thing. Of course, for them, it was a nonissue, in as much as they all ready have taken up arms.
But these are symbolic, and people who draw the line differently can live with these. I consider myself a pacifist and wouldn't take up arms unless I chose to in a given instance. But I certainly don't think that my signing such an oath, which I was not required to do in the State of Texas, where I am a public employee and have been for 26 years, I wouldn't think that it necessitated my doing so, and I don't think that having signed the oath would pledge me to do so.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some more callers in on the conversation. Craig is with us, calling from Prescott, Arizona.
CRAIG (Caller): That's right.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
CRAIG: I was asked to sign it in 1969. I held out for 10 months. I think I was the last teacher in the City of Denver, in the Denver public schools, to sign because my boss came up to me. And he said, you know, we're finally going to have to let you go, and he was very supportive. I thought it vestige of the Vietnam era, myself. And I had an opportunity to do some really unique stuff with some kids, and I decided that touching their lives was more important than having to sign the thing. So I signed it, but I held out for 10 months.
CONAN: And clearly, this has gnawed at you at least a little bit, all that time.
CRAIG: Pardon me?
CONAN: Has this gnawed at you over the years?
CRAIG: It has because I'm in Arizona now. I had to sign one here, and I just, after going through that thing in Denver, you know, I said, this is something they're going to make you do. I thought you could get away with - I was active in a lot of things, civil rights, etcetera. I thought I could get away with it, and he finally came and said, you know, we've got to pull your contract.
CONAN: And the same thing again happened in Arizona for you.
CRAIG: In Arizona. I didn't fight it in Arizona. The absurd thing was, in Arizona, you also have to declare your loyalty to the state constitution, which I can guarantee you none of the legislators have read cover to cover because it's an absurd constitution. It has a lot of things in it that really don't, you know, work anymore.
CONAN: Same thing in the State of California to the state constitution, as well. Why would that be, do you think Michael Olivas?
Dr. OLIVAS: I'm not certain I understand the question. Why would...
CONAN: Why would you require loyalty to, not just to the United States constitution, but to the state constitution as well?
Dr. OLIVAS: Well, in fact, you're a state employee rather than a public one. I don't want to be put in the position or paint myself in a corner of defending these puppies because I don't think that they're good public policy. But I do think that they're allowable, and courts have upheld them.
And again, the fact that you agree with it is a little like being a Catholic and having reservations. One doesn't have to agree with everything or defend it to the death. There are core principals, and, while I think that this is largely symbolic, and people can draw the line in a way that may harm themselves, the courts have consistently upheld that, as long as it doesn't become automatic on the basis of membership, such as in a group or communist party and so forth or totalitarian organization, then they're acceptable and simply a quid pro quo for a public employee.
And they're allowed to put reasonable kinds of prerequisites, such as being eligible, in the immigration, sense for working, signing an I-9 and so forth. And some of these paperwork requirements do ground themselves in more specific kinds of requirements, but again, the fact that I would pledge loyalty to this by virtue of signing doesn't mean that I agree with everything in the constitution. Part of my duty as a patriot and as a citizen or as a participant and employee, is to engage in struggle when necessary and so changing these things legislatively certainly has happened. The courts aren't the only resort.
CONAN: OK. Craig, thanks for the call.
CRAIG: Hey, you bet. Thank you very much.
CONAN: We're talking about loyalty oaths with Michael Olivas, who's the director of the Institute of Higher Education, Law, and Governance at the University of Houston. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
CONAN: And let's go to Mike. Mike with us from New Carlisle, Indiana.
MIKE (Caller): Good afternoon, Neal. How are you?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you.
MIKE: Certainly thrilled to be on your show. Last year, I was asked to serve as a trustee for a local library on the board of trustees, and, after I agreed, I was given some paperwork, which included a note to defend the constitution of the United States. There's nothing in there about our state constitution. And I had no idea that I was going to be given that, and when I was, to be honest with you, I was absolutely thrilled. I was awed. I love and defend our constitution and to think that somebody would ask me to defend it was thrilling. On the other hand, I am not much of a person who would sign much of any other kind of oath, ever.
CONAN: So this one you were happy to sign?
MIKE: Like I said, I was very happy to sign it.
CONAN: It's almost the same as the presidential oath.
MIKE: It was. For me, it made me part of our constitution, and I love and study our constitution and our founding fathers and to be a very minute but nonetheless part of that was awe inspiring to me - I think is the best way to put it.
CONAN: Mike, thanks very much.
MIKE: You're very welcome. Good day.
CONAN: So long. Let's talk now with Tina. Tina with us from Syracuse, New York.
TINA (Caller): How are you?
CONAN: I'm well, thank you.
TINA: I happened to be reading Molly Ivins' "Bill of Wrongs" when I was faced with signing the oath of office for the constitution of the United States and the State of New York when I applied for a job as a librarian assistant. And they gave me my paperwork after the fact. I received all my paperwork in the mail, and when I got to human resources, they sort of slipped it in.
And I just question, you know, like, gee, do I have to sign this? And I really don't know the constitution of New York State. I haven't read it recently. I don't think Elliot Spitzer had read it, and I was like, you know, do I have to sign it? And they were completely shocked at my question, as if I wasn't patriotic, and I think people should have this sort of reasonable lee-time to be able to read these documents.
And so she pointed out that there was a linguistic distinction, that they have changed the language from I solemnly swear to I solemnly affirm, to sort of placate people who had that question. But I was embarrassed. I felt like they were questioning my, you know, patriotism or my interest in the job. And I worked for New York State before as a professor, and, you know, I'm thinking it just put me on the spot to asked me questions about, you know, this document.
CONAN: And did you eventually sign?
TINA: I felt pressure to. Sure.
CONAN: And I think, Michael Olivas, it's that feeling of coercion that I - you know, in addition to the feeling of, you know, this is antiquated and unenforceable and you know. But that coercion, you have to sign this. That's what worries people.
Dr. OLIVAS: Well, I understand that, and again, I don't wish to defend these except as to their legality. Efficaciousness and patriotism are other considerations, but no one is forced to take employment in the public sector. And so, in a very real sense, you're not coerced into doing so, and I just might...
TINA: Unless you need the work.
Dr. OLIVAS: Pardon me?
CONAN: Unless you need the work is what she said.
Dr. OLIVAS: Well, but again, it's like objecting to having to prove that you're a citizen if you're born in the United States because you have to file an I-9. It's not coercion. People sign these because of the symbolism, and the fact is that all work is contingent upon completing applications, including I-9s, which we do all the time. And I've known people who were born in the United States who object to having to fill these out. They think that they're for foreigners. Except that that's the law, and it's being upheld any number of times, again I would...
Dr. OLIVAS: I would just define the difference between and remind people
CONAN: I'm afraid we're out of time, sir. We have to leave it. Tina, thanks very much for the call. And we thank all of those people who called in. Michael Olivas, I'm sorry to cut you off, but we are out of time. Thank you so much for your time today. Michael Olivas of the University of Houston with us by phone from his office. Tomorrow, we're back at the Newseum, be there with us. I'm Neal Conan, it's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
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