February 19, 1935
“A bill is being proposed by a Mr. Nunan in Albany requiring every student in college…to take an oath to uphold the state and Federal constitution. On the surface, it is harmless enough, but actually it was suggested by Mr. [William Randolph] Hearst to wipe out all form of campus radicalism…. 500 girls were as a mass meeting last night…where Prexy and the president of students and Polit. and several professors talked. Eight hundred signed a petition demanding the defeat of the bill…85 of us went up [to Albany] today…. We disrupted the whole senate and got them to give us a general hearing this afternoon when 4 of our ‘leaders’ spoke from the floor of the senate chamber….” MS student letter
Eighty-five Vassar students were joined at the state capitol by a contingent from Skidmore to protest the bill sponsored by Senator Joseph Nunan. The Nunan Student Oath Bill required all students entering colleges and universities in the state that received any public funds to take an oath of loyalty to the state and federal constitutions. The students, insisting that the bill was an attack on freedom of thought and speech, demanded that the bill, already cleared by the education committee for advancement to the Senate, be recommitted so that it could be protested. A group of the protesters spoke of their concerns with Governor Herbert Lehman, and when asked by Senator Nunan and Senator A. Spencer Feld, chairman of the education committee, why students from Vassar, which received no public funds, should feel so strongly, the students, led by the president of the Political Association, Katherine McInerny ‘35, replied that the bill was a violation of a basic democratic principle.
The bill was hastily recommitted, and Miss McInerny—who claimed that 888 Vassar students had signed a petition against the bill and that most of the 50,000 New York members of the National Students Federation were against it—made the case for moderation in arguing against the bill. “We represent,” she said, “the conservative element of college students. We are willing to take this oath, but we question why we should be asked to take it…. It is directed at Reds and radicals, but it also withholds the right of criticism from the conservative element we represent…. The Constitution has been amended many times and there wouldn’t have been amendments if there had not been criticism…. Suppression works just the opposite to what you gentlemen think…. This bill can lead to such a régime as Germany has under Hitler.”
Jane Whitbread ’36 came at the matter from another angle. Claiming that the bill selected students as a special group from whom to demand a loyalty oath, she asked “Why not demand oaths on the same theory from motorists who derive obvious benefits from the State? This bill is an assault on academic freedom and it will defeat its own ends. It will bring on the clash we are so desperately trying to avert.” The New York Times
On March 2, a student wrote to her family about her reading of John Locke’s “philosophy of gov’t….he says that the Lord is the supreme judge of whether the legislative body is exceeding its authority! It is very interesting—I think my mind is beginning to sprout at last. Speaking of legislatures, the latest communication from Albany is that they are favorable to the passage of the Nunan bill. Have you seen any of the Hearst editorials? esp. the one saying that Vassar girls ought to be sent to bed on bread and water?” Ms student letter
The bill passed the Senate, but it failed in the Assembly. Subsequent attempts to raise it brought wider and more vocal criticism across the country from students and faculty members. In early December, Whitbread took part in a broadcast on New York radio station WABC sponsored by the National Student Federation of America (NSFA). Asked by NSFA commentator Shepard Stone whether groups supporting the oath such as the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the Liberty League, the American Legion and the Hearst press were threatening American freedom, she replied that the groups "composed essentially of those who hold the power and are in danger of losing that power, are fortifying themselves by depriving the citizenry of their right to govern themselves, to criticize, suggest and to progress. The history of Germany shows that Fascism starts in just this way." The Miscellany News
The Nunan bill languished, then disappeared.