Freedom of association is implicit in the First Amendment’s guarantees of speech, press, free exercise, petition, and peaceable assembly. The right to association protects the natural inclination of people to combine their voices in a shared cause. As social and political animals, human beings unite with others in pursuit of common beliefs and goals. They establish civil, political, economic, religious, and vocational groups that act as intermediary bodies between the solitary individual and the ever-expanding power of the impersonal administrative state. Serving as an apprenticeship of democracy, these associations develop social capital—the bonds of trust, cooperation, and fellowship that hold society together. Indeed, Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, believed that these private civil and political associations were the very lifeblood of American democracy. The First Amendment shields them from government interference and scrutiny.
Written by Justice John Marshall Harlan (1899–1971), the Court’s unanimous decision in NAACP v. Alabama was a landmark for both civil rights and freedom of association. In response to civil rights demonstrations and boycotts at the time, Alabama sought to shut down the state affiliate of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It contended that the NAACP had not complied with a requirement to register as a “foreign corporation” and that its activities were “irreparably” harming the citizens of the state. Alabama sued to prevent any further activity on the part of NAACP and to have the organization expelled from the state. A restraining order was issued against the NAACP, as was a “production” order that required the organization to turn over all its records to state authorities. The NAACP complied with all requirements but withheld its membership list. Justice Harlan, writing for a unanimous Court, stated: “We think that the production order, in the respects here drawn in question, must be regarded as entailing the likelihood of a substantial restraint upon the exercise by petitioner’s members of their right to freedom of association.”
Source: 357 U.S. 449, https://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/357/449.
Mr. Justice HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.
We review from the standpoint of its validity under the federal Constitution a judgment of civil contempt entered against petitioner, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in the courts of Alabama. The question presented is whether Alabama, consistently with the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, can compel petitioner to reveal to the state’s attorney general the names and addresses of all its Alabama members and agents, without regard to their positions or functions in the association. The judgment of contempt was based upon petitioner’s refusal to comply fully with a court order requiring in part the production of membership lists. Petitioner’s claim is that the order, in the circumstances shown by this record, violated rights assured to petitioner and its members under the Constitution. . . .
We thus reach petitioner’s claim that the production order in the state litigation trespasses upon fundamental freedoms protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Petitioner argues that in view of the facts and circumstances shown in the record, the effect of compelled disclosure of the membership lists will be to abridge the rights of its rank-and-file members to engage in lawful association in support of their common beliefs. It contends that governmental action which, although not directly suppressing association, nevertheless carries this consequence, can be justified only upon some overriding valid interest of the state.
Effective advocacy of both public and private points of view, particularly controversial ones, is undeniably enhanced by group association, as this Court has more than once recognized by remarking upon the close nexus between the freedoms of speech and assembly (De Jonge v. Oregon; Thomas v. Collins). It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the ‘liberty’ assured by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech. Of course, it is immaterial whether the beliefs sought to be advanced by association pertain to political, economic, religious, or cultural matters, and state action which may have the effect of curtailing the freedom to associate is subject to the closest scrutiny.
The fact that Alabama, so far as is relevant to the validity of the contempt judgment presently under review, has taken no direct action to restrict the right of petitioner’s members to associate freely, does not end inquiry into the effect of the production order (see American Communications Association v. Douds). In the domain of these indispensable liberties, whether of speech, press, or association, the decisions of this Court recognize that abridgement of such rights, even though unintended, may inevitably follow from varied forms of governmental action. Thus in Douds, the Court stressed that the legislation there challenged, which on its face sought to regulate labor unions and to secure stability in interstate commerce, would have the practical effect “of discouraging” the exercise of constitutionally protected political rights, and it upheld that statute only after concluding that the reasons advanced for its enactment were constitutionally sufficient to justify its possible deterrent effect upon such freedoms. Similar recognition of possible unconstitutional intimidation of the free exercise of the right to advocate underlay this Court’s narrow construction of the authority of a congressional committee investigating lobbying and of an act regulating lobbying, although in neither case was there an effort to suppress speech. The governmental action challenged may appear to be totally unrelated to protected liberties. Statutes imposing taxes upon rather than prohibiting particular activity have been struck down when perceived to have the consequence of unduly curtailing the liberty of freedom of press assured under the Fourteenth Amendment (Grosjean v. American Press Co.; Murdock v. Pennsylvania).
It is hardly a novel perception that compelled disclosure of affiliation with groups engaged in advocacy may constitute as effective a restraint on freedom of association as the forms of governmental action in the cases above were thought likely to produce upon the particular constitutional rights there involved. This Court has recognized the vital relationship between freedom to associate and privacy in one’s associations. When referring to the varied forms of governmental action which might interfere with freedom of assembly, it said in American Communications Association v. Douds: “A requirement that adherents of particular religious faiths or political parties wear identifying arm-bands, for example, is obviously of this nature.” Compelled disclosure of membership in an organization engaged in advocacy of particular beliefs is of the same order. Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.
We think that the production order, in the respects here drawn in question, must be regarded as entailing the likelihood of a substantial restraint upon the exercise by petitioner’s members of their right to freedom of association. Petitioner has made an uncontroverted showing that on past occasions revelation of the identity of its rank-and-file members has exposed these members to economic reprisal, loss of employment, threat of physical coercion, and other manifestations of public hostility. Under these circumstances, we think it apparent that compelled disclosure of petitioner’s Alabama membership is likely to affect adversely the ability of petitioner and its members to pursue their collective effort to foster beliefs which they admittedly have the right to advocate, in that it may induce members to withdraw from the association and dissuade others from joining it because of fear of exposure of their beliefs shown through their associations and of the consequences of this exposure.
It is not sufficient to answer, as the state does here, that whatever repressive effect compulsory disclosure of names of petitioner’s members may have upon participation by Alabama citizens in petitioner’s activities follows not from state action but from private community pressures. The crucial factor is the interplay of governmental and private action, for it is only after the initial exertion of state power represented by the production order that private action takes hold.
We turn to the final question whether Alabama has demonstrated an interest in obtaining the disclosures it seeks from petitioner which is sufficient to justify the deterrent effect which we have concluded these disclosures may well have on the free exercise by petitioner’s members of their constitutionally protected right of association. . . . It is not of moment that the state has here acted solely through its judicial branch, for whether legislative or judicial, it is still the application of state power which we are asked to scrutinize. . . .
We hold that the immunity from state scrutiny of membership lists which the association claims on behalf of its members is here so related to the right of the members to pursue their lawful private interests privately and to associate freely with others in so doing as to come within the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment. And we conclude that Alabama has fallen short of showing a controlling justification for the deterrent effect on the free enjoyment of the right to associate which disclosure of membership lists is likely to have. Accordingly, the judgment of civil contempt and the $100,000 fine which resulted from petitioner’s refusal to comply with the production order in this respect must fall. . . .
For the reasons stated, the judgment of the Supreme Court of Alabama must be reversed and the case remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
- 1. A person—in this case a corporate person, the NAACP—who makes a formal application to a court for a writ, judicial action in a suit, etc.