Don't just obey the law. Support it!
April 6, 2012 8:39 AM   Subscribe

What does this oath mean, in practice, and what does "supporting a constitution" entail?

In September, I am starting a job at a state university (for the first time). They've just sent me some forms to fill out. One of them says that, by signing:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the State of ________, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of my position and subsequent positions, according to the best of my ability.”

The bit about discharging my duties as an employee is clear. What am I agreeing to do when I swear to "support the Constitution of ______ (a U.S. state)"? Do they mean something innocuous, or does "supporting a Constitution" entail some set of responsibilities beyond the normal following-the-laws-type responsibilities born by all citizens?

(I'm going to sign anyway, since there is no real alternative. I suspect that the "support the Constitution" doesn't require me to do things I wouldn't do anyway, but I'd like to be sure and, moreover, I am curious about what this language means and how it got there.)
posted by kengraham to Law & Government (13 answers total)
Basically it means that as an employee of the state, you take an oath not to smash the state, try to overthrow the state, or be seen to advocate for constitutional change.

Depending on interpretation and the nature of your job, you could be sacrificing your right to speak out against the state or to speak publicly and politically in such a way that someone might think you're speaking such things on behalf of the state. (On the other hand, that could be your job, if you're in public affairs, the Dean's office, etc.)
posted by Sunburnt at 8:46 AM on April 6, 2012

Sunburnt, as someone who's taken a similar oath (several times) I think that advocating for constitutional change is very much in line with supporting the Constitution. Because, a process for amendments is part of the document, itself.

I think the better concept to think about is the rule of law.

Or, historically, think about it this way. Those who supported secession were found to have violated that oath. But under the notion of "malice towards none" (Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address) those transgressions weren't prosecuted.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 9:09 AM on April 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, advocating constitutional change through the amendment process defined in the state Constitution would still be perfectly licit, but if you've been planning a coup d'état against the state government, I'm afraid that would be right out of the question.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 9:21 AM on April 6, 2012

Signing such a pledge is a promise not to overthrow the state government, and in certain states is also a promise not to duel.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 9:26 AM on April 6, 2012

I find it difficult to believe supporting the Constitution of ______ state would involve giving up free speech rights, especially if the constitution of said state provided free speech rights. Then, to exercise those rights, you would simply be supporting the said Constitution!

If/When you sign this, all you are saying is "I agree to abide by the constitution of ____ state."

Q: Does "supporting a constitution" entail some set of responsibilities beyond the normal following-the-laws-type responsibilities born by all citizens?

A: Yes, it can. Perhaps the constitution has statutes or responsibilities that only apply to employees at a state university. Of course, you would be legally obliged to follow these responsibilities even without signing the paper, assuming you were a state university employee.

For example, I am a police officer. I have responsibilities above and beyond the average citizen when it comes to witnessing acts of violence and car accidents, etc. These responsibilities aren't bestowed upon me simply because of my oath to support the constitution of my state, but rather by the position I hold.
posted by temetvince at 9:29 AM on April 6, 2012

It means you're not a commie. These state loyalty oaths are residual red scare stuff.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:03 AM on April 6, 2012

It doesn't mean anything. It is just an artifact from anti-communist redbaiting days. Fun fact: did you know that federal employees are supposed to pledge to support the Constitution "so help me God"? Yeah, I crossed that part out on my oath.
posted by yarly at 10:06 AM on April 6, 2012

Are you sure you're required to sign it? I was offered a similar one, only it also specifically said I was not a member of the communist party. I laughed and handed it back to the person and said, "I'm not signing that." She threw it out and said, "We're required to give it to you but you haven't been required to sign it since [1962]." (Or some similarly old-but-post-red-scare date.) There have been various state and federal court cases about loyalty oaths (with a variety of wordings), some upheld, some struck down.

I'm not a communist, I just think I have a First Amendment right to be one if I want to be, so I'm not signing that crap. What a waste of paper.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:37 AM on April 6, 2012

Fun fact: did you know that federal employees are supposed to pledge to support the Constitution "so help me God"? Yeah, I crossed that part out on my oath.

That line is optional. I always asked the people I swore in if they wanted it included.

Essentially, the oath means that you won't violate the state constitution.

QuantumInMerit has it right. Rule of law and a system of government, not the actual government itself (which would be a loyalty oath). The system has a mechanism for change included.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:48 AM on April 6, 2012

I figured out later it was optional, but the lady swearing us all in never told us (and she was wearing a littl gold cross ...) I was really quite startled by it.
posted by yarly at 11:14 AM on April 6, 2012

you could be sacrificing your right to speak out against the state

No, because the U.S. Constitution trumps state constitutions in just about every regard, particularly with regard to free speech.

Article VI: "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:25 AM on April 6, 2012

I've sworn this oath, as a soldier, along with thousands more that I met and argued with about this point. All of us had different ideas about what that specific clause meant and would fight for hours.

The important part to remember is that this morally binding more than legally binding. So-what does it mean to YOU? Mefites aren't swearing this oath, you are.
posted by corb at 12:01 PM on April 6, 2012

It means that you're promising to obey the law and do your job. It is pretty inocuous -- and extra inocuous for a university employee.
posted by Mr. Justice at 1:08 PM on April 6, 2012

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