Home » Articles » Case » Loyalty Oaths » Nostrand v. Little (1960)

Written by John R. Vile, last updated on September 19, 2023

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The Nostrand v. Little, 362 U.S. 474 (1960) case, which reached the Supreme Court twice, dealt with a Washington statute that required all public employees to take an oath that they were not members of subversive organizations or face immediate dismissal. The cases were considered by the Court to determine whether the law violated employees’ due process and other constitutional rights. In this photo, UCLA physicist David Saxon, right, waits his turn to speak during the 50th anniversary retrospective of the "University Loyalty Oath Symposium" Friday, Oct. 8, 1999, in Berkeley, Calif. Saxon was one of 31 faculty fired from the University of California in 1950 for refusing to sign a "loyalty oath", an oath disavowing any party advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government. Faculty refused to sign not because they were communists, but on the belief that compliance infringed on academic independence.(AP Photo/Ben Margot, used with permission from the Associated Press)

The Nostrand v. Little, 362 U.S. 474 (1960) case, which reached the Supreme Court twice, dealt with a Washington statute that required all public employees to take an oath that they were not members of subversive organizations or face immediate dismissal. The cases were considered by the Court to determine whether the law violated employees’ due process and other constitutional rights.

 

Court first remanded case to give emloyees a hearing

 

Because one ground for the case rested on the claim that employees had no opportunity for a hearing, the Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion remanding the case to the Supreme Court of Washington for determination of this point. Justice William O. Douglas wrote a dissent, joined by Justice Hugo L. Black, arguing that the remand was useless because he did not think such a hearing would exempt individuals from the oath. Douglas thought the underlying First Amendment issue of whether such oaths could be required was ripe for review.

 

Court dismissed First Amendment challenge

 

After the Washington Supreme Court ruled that individuals who refused to take the oath were entitled to a hearing, employees challenged the oath on First and Fourteenth Amendment grounds. Again the U.S. Supreme Court issued a per curiam opinion dismissing this question, this time “for want of a substantial federal question.” Once again, Douglas dissented, joined by Black.

 

Dissenters disagreed with the language of the oath

 

In examining the oath that employees were required to take, Douglas observed that employees had to swear that they did not intend “to ‘alter’ the Government of the United States by ‘revolution.’” He observed that “[t]o ‘alter’ has been the objective of many who have proposed constitutional amendments. The idea of ‘revolution’ is an American concept that at least until recently has been greatly revered. A ‘revolution’that operates through the route of constitutional amendments would, at least arguably, be in keeping with our ideas of freedom of belief and expression.”

 

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