Document 42: Cold War on Campus

Jane Sanders, Cold War on the Campus: Academic Freedom at the University of Washington
(Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979), 168-71.

Back to Document Concordance

[Dozens of University of Washington employees challenged the legality of the loyalty oaths required by state law. Their case, Baggett v. Bullitt, eventually landed in the US Supreme Court. They] claimed that the oaths violated the rights guaranteed to all citizens by the First . . . Amendment in that the vague terms of the [oaths] were a deterrent of free speech and conscience. . . . Furthermore, the plaintiffs contended, the oaths were imposed without the state showing sufficient evidence to warrant such severe laws.

The heart of the argument for the plaintiffs was that the vague language of the oaths was a . . . restraint on their freedom. [The plaintiffs listed] no less than 51,000 variations of speech, association, and publication that could be construed as "subversive activities"; persons swearing to the oaths could be tried for perjury unless they understood the ramifications of their past, present, and current activities. . . .

Understandably, [professors] who were citizens of foreign countries . . . felt jeopardized by the new requirement because they could not conscientiously sign the oaths [and renounce loyalty to their native countries.] All stated that they would not have accepted employment at the university if the oaths had been in effect when they were recruited, [strengthening] claims . . . that the university would suffer harm from the oaths. . . . Stull Holt objected to the [oaths] because, as a teacher of American History, he often criticized past actions of the government. Similarly, Rhoads Murphey (Geography and Far East) worried about the harassment and threat of prosecution . . . he would experience as a result of free discussions of U.S. involvement in . . . Vietnam. [Two other professors] refused to sign the oaths because they violated their Quaker beliefs. The record is [full of] such specific complaints that the vague language of the oaths violated the academic and constitutional . . . freedoms of the employees of the University of Washington.

[Washington] State Attorney General John O'Connell argued . . . that the . . . oaths were fair and necessary for the state's duty to insure the loyalty of its employees. Citing the record of the Canwell Committee, he showed that there was evidence of danger from within. . . . [The defenders of the oaths won the first few court decisions in the Baggett v. Bullitt case.]

[However, in 1964] the United States Supreme Court [struck down the oath laws] by a 7-2 margin. In reaching their decision, the justices cited the contention . . . that the language of the oaths was "unduly vague, uncertain and broad," and thus a violation of the First Amendment. . . .

Thus for the first time since 1931, the University of Washington faculty and students were free of [legal] restrictions on their academic freedom. The successful prosecution of Baggett v. Bullitt laid the foundation upon which other [professors at other universities] could contest their freedom and helped reverse the "sinister chain reaction" which began at the University of Washington in 1949. An [apt evaluation of] those difficult years was written by Arval Morris, "The rest of the nation may now associate the University of Washington with this fight for freedom rather than with the repressions of the Canwell Committee."

Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest