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COLE v. RICHARDSON

decided: April 18, 1972.

COLE, STATE HOSPITAL SUPERINTENDENT, ET AL
v.
RICHARDSON



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS.

Burger, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Stewart, White, and Blackmun, JJ., joined. Stewart and White, JJ., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 687. Douglas, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 687. Marshall, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Brennan, J., joined, post, p. 691. Powell and Rehnquist, JJ., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Author: Burger

[ 405 U.S. Page 677]

 MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this appeal we review the decision of the three-judge District Court holding a Massachusetts loyalty oath unconstitutional.

The appellee, Richardson, was hired as a research sociologist by the Boston State Hospital. Appellant Cole is superintendent of the hospital. Soon after she entered on duty Mrs. Richardson was asked to subscribe to the oath required of all public employees in Massachusetts. The oath is as follows:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America and the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and that I will oppose the overthrow of the government of the United States

[ 405 U.S. Page 678]

     of America or of this Commonwealth by force, violence or by any illegal or unconstitutional method."*fn1

Mrs. Richardson informed the hospital's personnel department that she could not take the oath as ordered because of her belief that it was in violation of the United States Constitution. Approximately 10 days later appellant Cole personally informed Mrs. Richardson that under state law she could not continue as an employee of the Boston State Hospital unless she subscribed to the oath. Again she refused. On November 25, 1968, Mrs. Richardson's employment was terminated and she was paid through that date.

[ 405 U.S. Page 679]

     In March 1969 Mrs. Richardson filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. The complaint alleged the unconstitutionality of the statute, sought damages and an injunction against its continued enforcement, and prayed for the convocation of a three-judge court pursuant to 28 U. S. C. §§ 2281 and 2284.

A three-judge District Court held the oath statute unconstitutional and enjoined the appellants from applying the statute to prohibit Mrs. Richardson from working for Boston State Hospital.*fn2 The District Court found the attack on the "uphold and defend" clause, the first part of the oath, foreclosed by Knight v. Board of Regents, 269 F.Supp. 339 (SDNY 1967), aff'd, 390 U.S. 36 (1968). But it found that the "oppose the overthrow" clause was "fatally vague and unspecific," and therefore a violation of First Amendment rights. The court granted the requested injunction but denied the claim for damages.

Appeals were then brought to this Court under 28 U. S. C. § 1253. We remanded for consideration of whether the case was moot in light of a suggestion that Mrs. Richardson's job had been filled in the interim. 397 U.S. 238 (1970). On remand, the District Court concluded that Mrs. Richardson's position had not been filled and that the hospital stood ready to hire her for the continuing research project except for the problem of the oath. In an unreported opinion dated July 1, 1970, it concluded that the case was not moot and reinstated its earlier judgment. Appellants again appealed, and we noted probable jurisdiction. 403 U.S. 917 (1971).

We conclude that the Massachusetts oath is constitutionally permissible, and in light of the prolonged litigation

[ 405 U.S. Page 680]

     of this case we set forth our reasoning at greater length than previously.

A review of the oath cases in this Court will put the instant oath into context. We have made clear that neither federal nor state government may condition employment on taking oaths that impinge on rights guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments respectively, as for example those relating to political beliefs. Law Students Research Council v. Wadmond, 401 U.S. 154 (1971); Baird v. State Bar of Arizona, 401 U.S. 1 (1971); Connell v. Higginbotham, 403 U.S. 207, 209 (1971) (MARSHALL, J., concurring in result). Nor may employment be conditioned on an oath that one has not engaged, or will not engage, in protected speech activities such as the following: criticizing institutions of government; discussing political doctrine that approves the overthrow of certain forms of government; and supporting candidates for political office. Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 (1967); Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360 (1964); Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction, 368 U.S. 278 (1961). Employment may not be conditioned on an oath denying past, or abjuring future, associational activities within constitutional protection; such protected activities include membership in organizations having illegal purposes unless one knows of the purpose and shares a specific intent to promote the illegal purpose. Whitehill v. Elkins, 389 U.S. 54 (1967); Keyishian v. Board of Regents, supra; Elfbrandt v. Russell, 384 U.S. 11 (1966); Wieman v. Updegraff, 344 U.S. 183 (1952). Thus, last Term in Wadmond the Court sustained inquiry into a bar applicant's associational activities only because it was narrowly confined to organizations that the individual had known to have the purpose of violent overthrow of the government and whose purpose the individual shared. And, finally, an oath may not be so vague that "'men of common intelligence

[ 405 U.S. Page 681]

     must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application, [because such an oath] violates the first essential of due process of law.'" Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction, 368 U.S., at 287. Concern for vagueness in the oath cases has been especially great because uncertainty as to an oath's meaning may deter individuals from engaging in constitutionally protected activity conceivably within the scope of the oath.

An underlying, seldom articulated concern running throughout these cases is that the oaths under consideration often required individuals to reach back into their past to recall minor, sometimes innocent, activities. They put the government into "the censorial business of investigating, scrutinizing, interpreting, and then penalizing or approving the political viewpoints" and past activities of individuals. Law Students Research Council v. Wadmond, 401 U.S., at 192 (MARSHALL, J., dissenting).

Several cases recently decided by the Court stand out among our oath cases because they have upheld the constitutionality of oaths, addressed to the future, promising constitutional support in broad terms. These cases have begun with a recognition that the Constitution itself prescribes comparable oaths in two articles. Article II, § 1, cl. 8, provides that the President shall swear that he will "faithfully execute the Office . . . and will to the best of [his] Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Article VI, cl. 3, provides that all state and federal officers shall be bound by an oath "to support this Constitution." The oath taken by attorneys as a condition of admission to the Bar of this Court identically provides in part "that I will support the Constitution of the United States"; it also requires the attorney to state that he will "conduct [himself] uprightly, and according to law."

[ 405 U.S. Page 682]

     little more than verbal calisthenics. Cf. S. Chase, The Tyranny of Words (1959); W. Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1955)." Cole v. Richardson, 397 U.S. 238, 240 (1970).

We have rejected such rigidly literal notions and recognized that the purpose leading legislatures to enact such oaths, just as the purpose leading the Framers of our Constitution to include the two explicit constitutional oaths, was not to create specific responsibilities but to assure that those in positions of public trust were willing to commit themselves to live by the constitutional processes of our system, as MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL suggested in Wadmond, 401 U.S., at 192. Here the second clause does not require specific action in some hypothetical or actual situation. Plainly "force, violence or . . . any illegal or unconstitutional method" modifies "overthrow" and does not commit the oath taker to meet force with force. Just as the connotatively active word "support" has been interpreted to mean simply a commitment to abide by our constitutional system, the second clause of this oath is merely oriented to the negative implication of this notion; it is a commitment not to use illegal and constitutionally unprotected force to change the constitutional system. The second clause does not expand the obligation of the first; it simply makes clear the application of the first clause to a particular issue. Such repetition, whether for emphasis or cadence, seems to be the wont of authors of oaths. That the second clause may be redundant is no ground to strike it down; we are not charged with correcting grammar but with enforcing a constitution.

The purpose of the oath is clear on its face. We cannot presume that the Massachusetts Legislature intended by its use of such general terms as "uphold," "defend," and "oppose" to impose obligations of specific, ...


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