Dissent is a core American value


Published: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 12:31 a.m.
Mandatory government loyalty oaths are a bad idea, and downright unAmerican. The issue isn't exactly at the top of my agenda as a county commissioner, but we don't always get to pick and choose the issues.
When I learned that the county planned to discontinue its practice of 23 years by resuming the loyalty oath requirement, I called for the commission to disregard the law, as the first step in a legal challenge, if necessary.
What purpose is served when a government requires its citizens to swear an oath to "support" its own specific structure? All citizens are already required to obey the law and do their jobs. By its nature, a mandatory loyalty oath is an attempt to regulate not behavior, but belief.
The precedent is dangerous enough, but an additional consequence is an erosion of public integrity. How many people have read every word of both state and federal Constitutions? How many would give up their livelihoods on the basis of some part they might find objectionable? Easier to shrug off the ethical consequences and take the oath, thereby contributing to the general decline of the significance of the act. Allegiance not freely given isn't loyalty, it's coercion.
Why limit the loyalty oath to public employees? The same reasoning used to justify the oath extends to citizen advisory committees, contracted employees, and ultimately anyone who receives government services. In other words, everyone. Employees are simply easier to intimidate.
As an elected official, I took an oath to support the constitutions of the state of Florida and the United States. I did not take an oath to support all the laws and regulations that the Florida legislature sees fit to impose, such as the mandatory loyalty oath for public employees. It's a critical distinction, particularly if one of those laws is believed to be in conflict with the letter or spirit of either Constitution.
America was born in civil disobedience. From the Boston Tea Party to Rosa Parks' refusal to sit at the back of the bus, it's been the catalyst behind many social and legislative changes we now take for granted. When government goes too far, people of conscience refuse to cooperate, not with the intent of evading the consequences, but of deliberately accepting them (this is what distinguishes civil disobedience from simple law-breaking). Widespread civil disobedience can serve as a wake-up call for a government too rooted in self-interest to reform itself.
It can be fairly debated whether mandatory government loyalty oaths rise to this level of significance. From one perspective, they seem trivial.
However, the vitriolic response in these opinion pages, and the ease with which accusations of treason and disloyalty are flung about, supports my judgment that this issue goes to the core of the relationship of power between citizens and their government.
Governments are entitled to regulate behavior in the public interest, but not thought or belief. In this era of orchestrated national fear, perpetual war, and shrinking civil liberties, it's important to remember that the right to dissent is a core American value.
Mike Byerly is an Alachua County Commissioner.

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