In Elfbrandt v. Russell, 384 U.S. 11 (1966), the Supreme Court held that a 1961 Arizona statute requiring that present and potential state employees sign a loyalty oath was an infringement of the freedom of political association guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Arizona required loyalty oath for state employees
Those signing the oath swore, in part, to “defend the United States and Arizona against all enemies, foreign and domestic” and to renounce political ideas and groups that the legislature viewed as a threat to the state’s security and political institutions.
Furthermore, an employee would be subject to prosecution for perjury if he or she “knowingly” became or remained a member of the Communist Party of the United States or any other organization that sought to overthrow the government of Arizona.
Teacher refused to sign oath
In 1961 Barbara Elfbrandt, an elementary school teacher in Tucson, Arizona, refused to sign the state loyalty oath and subsequently filed suit in county court against Imogene Russell, chairperson of the local school board, to prevent enforcement of the loyalty oath requirements.
Unsuccessful in the local court and on appeal to the state supreme court, she sought review in the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1964 the recently decided case of Baggett v. Bullitt (1964), in which the Supreme Court had struck down a similar loyalty oath applied to university teachers in the state of Washington, prompted the Court to send the case back to the Arizona court for reconsideration.
The Arizona court, however, reaffirmed its previous decision with one dissenting vote, and Elfbrandt again sought review in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Supreme Court said oath requirement infringed on First Amendment rights
In 1966 the Court handed down a 5-4 decision in favor of Elfbrandt in an opinion written by Justice William O. Douglas.
Douglas reasoned that “political groups may embrace both legal and illegal aims, and one may join such groups without embracing the latter.” The Arizona loyalty oath did not focus on individuals who might join a subversive organization with the “specific intent” to further the group’s illegal aims. Douglas concluded, therefore, that the oath “unnecessarily infringe(d) on the freedom of political association.”
The dissenters, led by Justice Byron White, argued that the statute barred only “knowing membership” and that innocent members of any group could sign the oath without fear of prosecution.