Charles Muscatine, Champion of Freedoms of Expression and Conscience on Campus: 1920-2010

By March 17, 2010

Every movement has its heroes, and the movement for freedom of conscience and freedom of speech on our nation’s campuses is no exception. So it was with sadness that we at FIRE read about the recent passing of noted Chaucer scholar and University of California at Berkeley Professor Charles Muscatine, a hero to the free speech movement.

A World War II veteran and triple-graduate of Yale University, Professor Muscatine is known and revered for refusing to sign a loyalty oath imposed upon the faculty at Berkeley. In 1950, the University of California system began enforcing a state law requiring all employees, including professors, to sign a loyalty oath. Despite considerable professional and financial risk, not to mention the social stigma associated with such a move, Muscatine refused. As a result, he was fired, along with thirty other Berkeley professors. He and his colleagues filed suit and won, winning a major victory for freedom of speech. The initial court ruling in the case, Tolman v. Underhill, is available here. In 1954, Muscatine returned to Berkeley to finish out his career. 

His obituary in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle illustrates that Muscatine knew precisely the importance of the principle at stake:

"I had been insisting to the kids that you stick to your guns and tell it the way you see it, and you think for yourself and you express things for yourself," he explained, years after the loyalty oath controversy. "I felt that I couldn’t really justify teaching students if I weren’t behaving the same way. So I simply couldn’t sign the oath."

He saw it as a violation not only of academic freedom, but of the oath to the U.S. Constitution he had already taken when he entered the Navy during World War II. A lieutenant, he landed at Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

Many UC employees believed they had to sign the loyalty oath because they had families to support, or a mortgage. Professor Muscatine had both. Yet he had no choice, said his daughter, Lissa Muscatine, a speech writer for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"For him, fighting against Hitler in World War II to define democratic principles was the same as standing up for democratic principles by not signing the loyalty oath," she said.

We are happy to celebrate the life and legacy of this principled First Amendment champion.