By: Alfred E. Smith
Source: Moskowitz, Henry, ed. Progressive Democracy: Addresses and State Papers of Alfred E. Smith. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1928, 275–276.
About the Author: Alfred E. Smith (1873–1944) was born on the Lower East Side of New York, the child of second-generation immigrants. With only an eighth-grade education, Smith went on to become a New York State assemblyman, governor of New York for four terms, and, in 1928, the Democratic presidential candidate. As New York governor (1919–1921 and 1923–1929), he worked to pass legislation to improve social welfare and preserve the rights of individuals.
The "Lusk Laws" were passed during the "Red Scare" following World War I (1914–1918), a period marked by a distrust and fear of radicals and foreigners, especially those individuals thought to represent the socialist ideals that had recently spread throughout Europe following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Economic woes, waves of immigrants entering the country, and labor struggles all fed the growing paranoia.
It was in this context that the New York legislature formed, in 1919, the Joint Legislative Committee to Investigate Seditious Activities, headed by Senator Clayton Lusk. This group, known as the Lusk Committee, conducted an investigation of a large number of organizations and individuals suspected of advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government. Tactics used included raiding the headquarters of suspect organizations, seizing documents, infiltrating groups, and investigating individuals found on membership lists. Thousands of people were arrested. The committee produced an enormous report entitled "Revolutionary Radicalism: Its History, Purpose and Tactics."
In the report, the Lusk Committee stressed that education is the key to forming citizens loyal to American institutions and values. Teachers, the report states, because they are in a position to directly influence students, must "possess character above reproach and should be loyal to the institutions and laws of the government they represent." Regarding the public school teacher, the report asserts that "If he does not approve of the present social system or the structure of our government he is at liberty to entertain those ideas, but must surrender his public office."
Based on the report and recommendations of the committee, the New York legislature passed the Lusk Bills, two of which concerned education. The first of these required all public school teachers to sign an oath of loyalty "to the institutions of the United States and of the State of New York and the laws thereof." The second bill required certain private schools to show that their activities were not "detrimental to the public interest" in order to obtain a license to operate.
The Lusk Bills were passed at a time when many individual rights and liberties were sacrificed to the goal of protecting Americans and American institutions from foreign and subversive forces. Calls for loyalty oaths were not the only way schools and teachers were affected by this social climate. A 1923 Nebraska law, for example, banned the teaching of foreign languages, and a 1922 Oregon law required all students to attend public schools only. These laws aimed to increase the uniformity of the American population and reduce the influence of radicals and subversives.
By vetoing the Lusk Bills, Governor Smith took a stand for the academic freedom of teachers and their right to freedom of speech and thought. Smith stated that such laws, far from protecting democracy, are themselves destructive of "the foundations of democratic education." Although Smith vetoed the Lusk Laws, his successor, Governor Nathan Miller, signed them into law. Smith ran for office again with the promise to repeal the Lusk Laws as part of his campaign. He was reelected in 1923 and repealed the laws.
The roller-coaster-like history of the Lusk Laws illustrates the intensity of the debate over the protection of the American way of life on the one hand, and the individual freedoms that are part of that life on the other. Schools and teachers are often impacted by this recurring battle. Decisions regarding the way that young minds are shaped in society are seen by many groups as key to the question: Should students be educated for loyalty to existing systems or for critical inquiry?
Primary Source: "Memoranda Accompanying the Vetoes of the Lusk Laws" [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: In the following memorandum, Governor Alfred E. Smith describes his reasoning behind his veto of the Lusk Bill that required each teacher to obtain a certificate from the Commissioner of Education indicating that he or she is morally upright and loyal to the United States and New York State governments. Smith defends teachers' freedom of speech and thought.
Albany, May 18, 1920.
Memorandum filed with Senate Bill, Int. No. 1121, Printed No. 1275, Assembly Reprint No. 2165, entitled:
An act to amend the education law, in relation to the qualifications of teachers, and making an appropriation for expenses.
N OT A PPROVED.This bill provides that every public-school teacher in the State shall obtain a certificate from the Commissioner of Education to the effect that he or she is of good moral character, and has shown satisfactorily that he or she will support the State and Federal Constitutions and is loyal "to the institutions and laws thereof." The certificate may be revoked without hearing on the ground that the commissioner may find that the teacher is not "loyal to the institutions of the United States and of the State of New York and the laws thereof." The test established is not what the teacher teaches, but what the teacher believes, and the effect of the bill would be to make the Commissioner of Education the sole and arbitrary dictator of the personnel of the teaching force of the State in its public schools.
This bill must be judged by what can be done under its provisions. It permits one man to place upon any teacher the stigma of disloyalty and this even without hearing or trial. No man is so omniscient or wise as to have entrusted to him such arbitrary and complete power not only to condemn any individual teacher, but to decree what belief or opinion is opposed to the institutions of the country.
No teacher could continue to teach if he or she entertained any objection, however conscientious, to any existing institution. If this law had been in force prior to the abolition of slavery, opposition to that institution which was protected by the Constitution and its laws would have been just cause for the disqualification of a teacher. There is required of the teacher not only loyalty to the Constitution and the laws of the State but also loyalty to what is described as the institutions of the United States and of the State of New York.
Opposition to any presently established institution, no matter how intelligent, conscientious, or disinterested this opposition might be, would be sufficient to disqualify the teacher. Every teacher would be at the mercy of his colleagues, his pupils, and their parents, and any word or act of the teacher might be held by the commissioner to indicate an attitude hostile to some of "the institutions of the United States" or of the State.
The bill unjustly discriminates against teachers as a class. It deprives teachers of their right to freedom of thought; it limits the teaching staff of the public schools to those only who lack the courage or the mind to exercise their legal right to just criticism of existing institutions. The bill confers upon the Commissioner of Education a power of interference with the freedom of opinion which strikes at the foundations of democratic education.
The bill is, therefore, disapproved.
(Signed) Alfred E. Smith
Eldot, Paula. Governor Alfred E. Smith: The Politician as Reformer. New York: Garland, 1983.
Finan, Christopher M. Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior. New York: Hill and Wang, 2002.
Kovel, Joel. Red Hunting in the Promised Land: Anticommunism and the Making of America. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
"Alfred E. Smith, U.S. Politician." History Channel: Speeches. Available online at http://www.historychannel.com/speeches/archive/speech_278.h... ; website home page: http://www.historychannel.com/ (accessed March 12, 2003).