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NAACP v. Patterson
[357 U.S. 449]
Warren Court,  Decided 9-0,  6/30/1958
Read the actual decision


Chief Justice Earl WarrenIt was in this case that the Supreme Court first discovered the right to freedom of association as inherent, though unwritten, in the First Amendment.

In the heyday of civil rights strife in the Old South, the state of Alabama was attempting to use its corporate disclosure laws to harass the NAACP, which was conducting various marches and demonstrations in the state. When the organization failed to comply with the filing laws, it was brought to trial on charges that its tactics were a detriment to the people of the state.

At trial, the court demanded a variety of NAACP records, most of which were eventually presented. But the organization refused to comply with a request for its membership list, claiming that it would expose its members to reprisals. The judge held the NAACP in contempt and fined it $100,000. The organization appealed.

The Supreme Court unanimously found that the individual rights of the NAACP members provided a defense for the organization in not producing the list. It further found that its members had a constitutional right to associate freely in a lawful manner, and to do so in privacy. The same right was applied to the NAACP as a whole when the Court found that producing the membership list would be an undue burden on the organization's freedom of association.

The Court could not find a compelling state interest in the membership list which would overpower the rights of the organization and its members, and therefore overturned the fine and contempt charge.

It's not difficult to agree with the Court in it's discovery of a new "right" here, even without considering that the whole point of the Ninth Amendment is to guarantee just such non-enumerated rights. The right of free association is almost identical with the enumerated Freedom of Assembly.

But beyond the obvious, the Court mentioned another right -- which should be similarly obvious as a twin of freedom in general, but was not officially "discovered" until Griswold (1965) -- that of privacy. In asserting a right to pursue lawful interests in privacy, the opinion in NAACP should have laid the groundwork for protecting individual commercial privacy much more broadly than is in evidence today, where even states sell personal information to marketers.

Further, in adding the stipulation as it usually does, that the state did not demonstrate a "compelling interest" for disclosure, the Court left open the possibility that it might allow such an invasion in another case, perhaps one involving a politically less acceptable organization. That's a value judgment with which the Court must be cautious.


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Other decisions pertaining to Free Association:

Boy Scouts of America v. Dale    [530 U.S. 640 (2000)]  Rehnquist Court
Dennis v. United States    [341 U.S. 494 (1951)]  Vinson Court

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