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According to the New York education laws and regulations, teachers were required to sign a certificate to confirm that they were not participants of “subversive” organizations, one of which was the Communist party. This was a strict condition of teachers’ employment; its violation led to inevitable dismissal. Besides, in case of teachers had been participants of any of the listed “subversive” organizations, they were required to inform the President of the university (Zirkel, Richardson & Goldberg, p.97).
The appellants argued that this condition was unconstitutional. Besides, according to the New York’s Education Law (section 3021), teachers could be dismissed for “seditions and treasonable” utterances and acts; this formulation was argued to be vague (teachers were not able to distinguish what words and actions were prohibited) and thus unconstitutional. Moreover, according to the Civil Service Law (section 105), teachers could be dismissed for distribution of written materials that promote the idea of overthrowing the government (ibid.).
Did the teacher loyalty rules and regulations violate the U.S. Constitution due to their vagueness?
- First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
- New York’s Education Law
- Civil Service Law
The core of the discussion was whether the meaning of the words used in the laws and regulations, such as “seditions and treasonable”, was comprehensible or too broad and vague.
The following points were paid attention to in the discussion:
- The terms “reasonable” and “seditious” were considered too broad: they did not define whether a teacher should avoid making concrete speeches aimed at the initiation of “subversive” actions or he/she was required to avoid discussion of abstract doctrines.
- The discussed laws and regulations did not emphasize such condition as a teacher’s intent to promote “seditious” ideas or take such actions. Thus, any discussion that touched upon the “seditious” topics could be a ground for dismissal, even if a teacher did not agitate for specific “treasonable” and “seditious” actions.
The Court decided that New York’s teacher loyalty laws and regulations were unconstitutional due to their vagueness. The case was of big significance: the decision of the Court demonstrated that the local power’s regulations should not set public employment conditions that would abridge constitutional rights.
Zirkel, P.A., Richardson, S.N., & Goldberg, S.S. (2001). A Digest of Supreme Court Decisions Affecting Education. Bloomington, Ind.: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation.