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Elfbrandt v. Russell

    Brief Fact Summary. An Arizona Act requiring all public employees to take an oath to support the state and federal Constitutions was held by the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) to be unconstitutional.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A law which restricts the type of membership that does not have “specific intent” to further the illegal aims of the organization infringes unnecessarily on protected freedoms. Such a law rests on the doctrine of “guilty by association” and such a law is unconstitutional.

    Facts. An Arizona law required all public employees to take an oath to support the state and federal Constitutions. Employees who took the oath were subject to prosecution for perjury and discharge who “knowingly and willfully becomes or remains a member of the Communist Party.” The Petitioner, Elfbrandt (Petitioner), a teacher and a Quaker, decided that she could not, in good faith take the oath because she did not know what it meant and was not given a chance learn the extent of its scope and meaning.

    Issue. Whether the Arizona Act requiring all public employees take an oath to support the state and federal Constitutions is constitutional?

    Held. No. Judgment of the lower court reversed. This oath and statutory gloss suffers from constitutional infirmity. The oath subjects those who take it to criminal prosecution and discharge. Nothing in the oath, statutory gloss, or construction of the oath purports to exclude association by one who does not subscribe to the organization’s unlawful ends. Thus, the hazard of being prosecuted for knowing, but guiltless behavior is a reality. A law which applies to membership without the “specific intent” to further the illegal aims of the organization, as here, infringes unnecessarily on protected freedoms. Therefore, the Arizona Act requiring all public employees take an oath to support the state and federal Constitutions is not constitutional.

    Dissent. Our Constitution does not require this kind of protection for the secret proselyting of government employees into the Communist Party.

    Discussion. This case finds the law in question unconstitutional because it is overbroad and had the capacity to punish lawful conduct.


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