David Fifield

STATE OATH OF ALLEGIANCE. I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties upon which I am about to enter.

When I arrived at UC Berkeley in August 2013, after having accepted an offer of admission and moved into an apartment, I was blindsided by the California State Loyalty Oath, which all state employees who are U.S. citizens are required to sign. The first that I heard of it was when I went in to do the necessary paperwork to become employed by the university as a GSR (graduate student researcher). The conversation went something like this:

“Here's your tax form, your health insurance form, loyalty oath, ...”

“Loyalty oath?”

“Everybody has to sign a loyalty oath.”

“I’m not signing any loyalty oath.”

“You have to sign the oath.”

“Whatever else happens today, there’s no way I’m signing a loyalty oath.”

“Everybody signs the oath.”

So I walked out without doing any of the paperwork, and began considering my options. This was a time of crisis for me, and my spirits were low. I had to reckon with possibly canceling my admission, only weeks after having accepted UC Berkeley’s offer and turned down others. After a few agonizing weeks, my advisor Doug Tygar worked out a way to pay my tuition and stipend from non-university sources, so that I could be a student without being a university employee. And so it remained, until I graduated in December 2018.

Needless to say, no one calling themself an American should have anything to do with a loyalty oath. A free government should not demand it, and a free citizen should not sign it. I have heard of some (and spoken to one) who object either to oaths in general or to violent action on behalf of the state. For me, it purely a matter of principle. To sign a loyalty oath would be a compromise of my personal ethics.

The most disappointing part of my experience is that it was exceptional. There must be hundreds of new graduate students and professors—let alone all the other state employees in California!—who sign the oath without thinking, who don’t discuss it with their peers, who don’t question what it means or represents. There are only cases I know of in recent times of people refusing to sign; a few of them are listed below. In one of the many meetings early on trying to understand my options, I stated that I didn’t feel a need to cause a stir about my refusal to sign, and one of the assistants, a Quaker who had her own reservations about the oath, said “I wish you would.”

To those who would sign such an oath without thinking, or who say “it doesn’t really mean anything,” I say, Did you never take a civics class? Do you make all promises so lightly? If you will sign something called an oath without intending to honor it, what would it take for you to make a statement that someone could actually trust?

The root of the loyalty oath is in 1950s McCarthyism, a sad time for American principles. The oath at that time was worded differently, but the idea was the same. Some brave professors rightly objected, and some lost their jobs over it. The university likes to pretend that the oath lies in the past and is now only a historical curiosity: in 1999 they hosted a 50-year “retrospective” symposium. But the oath remains as ever. As evidence of the regents’ continuing hypocrisy, see this banner hung before the Campanile in Spring 2018 for the 150th anniversary of UC Berkeley, awarding itself a job well done for having once protested a policy that remains in full effect today.

1950: Faculty refuse to sign a loyalty oath that requires them to declare they are not Communists. The other side of the banner: a bench of people before a table with documents before them.

Being at UC Berkeley was an irreplaceable experience, and in the main I enjoyed my time there. But it still burns me up when I think of that stooge in the engineering support office: “Everybody signs the oath.”