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BAGGETT V. BULLITT, 377 U. S. 360 (1964)

U.S. Supreme Court

Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360 (1964)

Baggett v. Bullitt

No. 220

Argued March 24, 1964

Decided June 1, 1964

377 U.S. 360


This class action was brought by members of the faculty, staff, and students of the University of Washington for a judgment declaring unconstitutional 1931 and 1955 state statutes requiring the taking of oaths, one for teachers and the other for all state employees, including teachers, a a condition of employment. The 1931 oath requires teachers to swear, by precept and example, to promote respect for the flag and the institutions of the United States and the State of Washington, reverence for law and order and undivided allegiance to the Government of the United States. The 1955 oath for state employees, which incorporates provisions of the state Subversive Activities Act, requires the affiant to swear that he is not a "subversive person": that he does not commit, or advise, teach, abet or advocate another to commit or aid in the commission of any act intended to overthrow or alter, or assist in the overthrow or alteration, of the constitutional form of government by revolution, force or violence. "Subversive organization" and "foreign subversive organization" are defined in similar terms, and the Communist Party is declared a subversive organization. A three-judge District Court held that the 1955 statute and oath were not unduly vague and did not violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and it abstained from ruling on the 1931 oath until it was considered by the state courts.


1. The provisions of the 1955 statute and the 1931 Act violate due process, since they, as well as the oaths based thereon, are unduly vague, uncertain and broad. Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction, 368 U. S. 278, followed. Pp. 377 U. S. 361-372.

2. A State cannot require an employee to take an unduly vague oath containing a promise of future conduct at the risk of prosecution for perjury or loss of employment, particularly where the exercise of First Amendment freedoms may thereby be deterred. Pp. 377 U. S. 373-374.

3. Federal courts do not automatically abstain when faced with a doubtful issue of state law, since abstention involves a discretionary exercise of equity power. Pp. 377 U. S. 375-379.

Page 377 U. S. 361

(a) There are no special circumstances warranting application of the doctrine here. P. 377 U. S. 375.

(b) Construction of the 1931 oath cannot eliminate the vagueness from its terms, and would probably raise other constitutional issues. P. 377 U. S. 378.

(c) Abstention leads to piecemeal adjudication and protracted delays, a costly result where First Amendment freedoms may be inhibited. Pp. 377 U. S. 378-379.

215 F. Supp. 439, reversed.

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