National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Alabama


Significance: The Supreme Court explicitly recognized that a freedom of association was implied in the First Amendment's guarantee of free expression and free assembly and was an “inseparable aspect” of the liberty guaranteed by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

As the Civil Rights movement started in the 1950's, several southern states tried to limit the activities of groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Alabama had a law that required out-of-state businesses to register with the state and disclose their membership list in order to do business in the state. A state court concluded that the NAACP was a business rather than a nonprofit organization and ordered the group to turn over the names of its members to the state attorney general. The NAACP refused and argued that the disclosure of rank-and-file members would lead to reprisals and public hostility, placing unacceptable burdens on the right of members to belong to the association and to support its goals. The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the NAACP's position. Writing for the Court, Justice John M. Harlan II declared that the Constitution prohibited the states from limiting the ability of the members of a legal and nonsubversive organization “to pursue their collective efforts to foster beliefs which they admittedly have a right to advocate.” Because the freedom to participate in an association is a fundamental right, Harlan instructed courts to use the closest scrutiny when examining state actions that have the effect of curtailing this freedom. In numerous cases since 1958, the Court upheld restrictions on the freedom of association whenever a group is engaged in criminal activities or invidious discrimination.