'I Pledge Allegiance...' (May I Teach Now?)

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It would appear
that the State of Colorado has suddenly developed a new-found appreciation
for the Constitution of the United States. At least, that's the
impression the State legislature is trying to give with its new
law requiring professors and teaching assistants at state colleges
and universities to take an oath promising to "uphold the constitution
of the United States and the State of Colorado."

Last week,
as a teaching assistant at the University of Colorado, I was required
by state law to sign this "oath" and have it officially
notarized. Since I have never taken an oath before (nor have I ever
known anyone who has), I took a few minutes to consider the significance
of this bureaucratic pledge to the self-proclaimed representatives
of a two hundred year old piece of paper.

I began by
considering the oath itself:

solemnly (swear);(affirm) that I will uphold the constitution
of the United States and the constitution of the State of Colorado,
and I will faithfully perform the duties of the position upon
which I am about to enter."

Seems uncontroversial,
doesn't it? One might even imagine that libertarians could support
such a pledge (especially if they're from a Beltway Institute, where
the Constitution usually serves as a convenient substitute for any
profound or original thought about the ethics of freedom). What
I realized, however, was that this "oath" really signifies
the complete negation of liberty in several respects.

In the
first place, if the legislature really intended to defend the Constitution
of the United States against its many academic detractors, then
why haven't all the proponents of gun control been thrown out of
the universities already? The second amendment of the Constitution
is unambiguous in its defense of gun ownership. Aren't proponents
of gun control in the academy failing to "uphold the Constitution
of the United States"? And what about those who happen to openly
support the Patriot Act with its flagrant and explicit violation
of the 4th amendment? Why haven't they been ousted from
their posts for failing to "uphold the Constitution of the
United States"?

the matter from the reverse angle. Suppose that I were to enter
my classroom (after having taking the above "oath") and
tirelessly advocate that my students purchase firearms as their
Constitutional right, that they form or join militias for the defense
of their states, and that they cease paying their taxes until the
unconstitutional suspension of habeas corpus in Guantanamo
Bay, Cuba, ceases. Does anyone really believe that I would receive
a commendation for having staunchly upheld my oath to "uphold
the Constitution of the United States"? On the contrary!

This so-called
"oath" is much more insidious than that, however. The
State of Colorado has effectively criminalized all open disagreement
with the provisions of the United States Constitution in academic
settings. (Professors and teaching assistants take the oath "under
penalty of perjury.") Since professors and teaching assistants
can potentially be criminally prosecuted for having failed "to
uphold the Constitution of the United States," they must not
only guard against personally saying anything that can be broadly
construed as an attack on the constitution, they must ensure that
their students do not say anything like this as well. For, if their
students happen to say anything that could be construed as an attack
on the constitution, these professors and teaching assistants could
be blamed for not having quelled these anti-constitutional sentiments
in the name of upholding the constitution. (Of course, the most
effective way for professors to preemptively guard against these
charges would be to toss these ostensibly treasonous youngsters
out of their classes, heaping derision upon them in the process.)

The fact
that this "oath" is more dangerous than it is asinine
becomes readily apparent when we consider its enforcement. Who,
after all, will decide whether I have "upheld the Constitution
of the United States" as a teaching assistant? Will the state
colleges and universities have to create offices that can ensure
that no professors or teaching assistants are undermining the constitution
in their classes? Will my students be permitted to contact the Attorney
General of Colorado to rat out violations of my "oath"?
Will I be oath-bound to rat out my students who openly disagree
with the constitution? If so, what kind of colleges and universities
would we have, if both students and teachers had to guard against
denouncement to the police simply because they happen to discuss
whether the fourth amendment could be reformulated in a better way?

for the sake of argument, however, that I took this "oath"
seriously and I really wanted to make sure that I was upholding
the constitution in my classes. What version of the constitution
would I be oath-bound to uphold? Constitutional scholars, lawyers
and judges can scarcely agree on the meaning of any single word
in the document as it stands at this very moment, and the interpretation
of the document has changed constantly ever since it was ratified.
Am I oath-bound to keep abreast of the latest constitutional developments
in the U.S. Supreme Court before I speak in class?

As an example
of how problematic this particular problem is, and at the risk of
perjuring myself, I will admit that I do not desire (nor do I intend)
to uphold the Constitution of the United States as it now stands,
because I consider most of the document to run counter to individual
liberty. Instead, I desire to have the several states peacefully
secede from one another. Now, if I were to attempt to foster this
idea among my students would I be "upholding the Constitution
of the United States," or would I be undermining it? The Constitution
of the United States, after all, used to be interpreted to allow
for the peaceful secession of the states.

In the
end, I signed the "oath" like every other professor and
teaching assistant at public universities and colleges in the state
of Colorado. I felt somewhat ashamed that I wasn't willing to stand
up for my right to question the constitution in class by refusing
to sign. (I was also slightly worried that, depending upon how the
ridiculously ambiguous phrase "uphold the constitution"
was interpreted, I may have perjured myself). Mostly, however, I
just felt depressed by the irrepressible feeling that the universities
in Colorado would likely become more sterilized, boring, and dangerous
over time, as they always do in totalitarian states where allegiance
is gained solely through force.

2, 2006

Mark R.
Crovelli [send him mail]
is a graduate student in the department of political science at
the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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