Alabama during the 1950’s tried to make the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People give up and surrender their lists which included member names and member addresses. The NAACP feared that if the identities of members were made public, then there would be a real dangerous risk for intimidation and threats to their membership. The NAACP also responded that might even be the reason the state of Alabama had in mind when attempting to get this personal information on private citizens. The Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision in 1958 that the government could not force non-profit groups to surrender their member lists. According to the Supreme Court in its ruling, Alabama’s demand restricted free association rights because it “may induce members to withdraw from the Association and dissuade others from joining it because of fear of exposure of their beliefs.” Due to this ruling, civic organizations have been able to operate without having to worry that their members will have their privacy compromised.
During the 1950’s there were many instances of state and local governments retaliating against civil rights groups, especially those with the mission of helping African American civil rights. The main group being the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “Back in the 1950s, the public associated the NAACP with bold, even radical efforts to force an end to legal segregation. Many welcomed the political and legal work of the NAACP. But many others did not. Especially in the South, letting go of traditions of racial discrimination was painfully hard. In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education officially ending state imposed public school segregation” (Allen, 9). Alabama had hoped that if they could use statutes in state law that they claimed the NAACP was violating, they could force the organization to close operations in the state of Alabama. The NAACP admitted they had been in violation of the state law, as they believed that they were exempt from it, but maintained that giving up their member lists would be a violation of the due process guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.
Alabama, as well as other Southern states, had attempted to think of ways to prevent the NAACP and other civil rights organizations from conducting business and being able to successful operate in their states, because of the role these groups were playing in mobilizing African Americans and attempting to combat the injustices that had been facing African Americans in these states: “Alabama conceived a clever strategy to expel the NAACP, one that relied on the state’s foreign corporation qualification law” (Allen, 7). At the time, the Attorney General of Alabama was John Patterson. “Alabama had a statute similar to other states’ requiring out-of-state (“foreign”) corporations to register or “qualify” prior to transacting business. To qualify, a corporation was supposed to file its charter with the secretary of state, designate a place of business, and name an agent to receive service of process. The penalty for transacting business without having first qualified included fines for the organization and criminal prosecution of its corporate officers. Alabama decided that the NAACP, which had been organized in New York, was a foreign corporation operating in Alabama. In 1956, Alabama officials accused the NAACP of violating the law requiring foreign corporations to register with the state. The state alleged that the NAACP had flagrantly violated the law by operating extensively in the state without taking the steps to qualify” (Allen, 7). However, the NAACP maintained that its activities within the state of Alabama did not violate this statute. Furthermore, the NAACP claimed the suit was ultimately an attempt to violate its freedom of speech and of assembly guaranteed and protected by the Constitution.
In recognizing the connection between privacy and freedom of association, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government could not force groups to surrender their member lists. This sort of “exposure”, (NAACP v. Alabama) as the Supreme Court phrased it in its ruling, would greatly damage organizations’ ability to fulfill their missions. In the words of the Supreme Court, Alabama’s demand restricted free association rights because it “may induce members to withdraw from the Association and dissuade others from joining it because of fear of exposure of their beliefs” (NAACP v. Alabama). Today, this is described as disclosure’s “chilling effect” on freedom of speech and association. While referring to the NAACP’s involvement with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, the state of Alabama claimed the NAACP was ‘causing irreparable injury to the property and civil rights of the residents and citizens of the State of Alabama for which criminal prosecution and civil actions at law afford no adequate relief’. In response, the NAACP, which was being represented by Robert L. Clark of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, stated that Alabama was aiming to violate its rights to freedom of speech and of assembly as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. Ultimately, the case ended up at the Supreme Court; however, first it appeared in front of an Alabama state circuit court. There, the court found the NAACP guilty of violating an Alabama state statute requiring foreign corporations to qualify before doing business in the state. The NAACP, which was based in New York and not in the state of Alabama, had not complied with the statute. The state suit attempted to both prevent the NAACP from conducting more business within the state and, ultimately, to remove it from the state.
Before the case made its way all the way to being in front of the Supreme Court, the NAACP had been punished by the lower circuit state courts with fines starting out with the amount of $10,000 and ultimately reaching $100,000. “Unlike its guarantees for religion, speech, press, and assembly, the First Amendment does not specifically list freedom of association as a right that cannot be abridged. Social and legal observers have long argued, however, that just as an individual has the right to express his or her own views, so too does that individual have the right to associate with others who share the same opinions” (Brown, 2). The case the NAACP was making was whether or not the freedom of association of its members being known would lead to their identities being used against them by the state of Alabama in a retaliatory manner, which would then give states the opportunity to request member lists from a variety of civil rights and civic organizations and get their rolls full of member names and member addresses. With that sort of personal data, there would be an opportunity for states to retaliate and harm people in their communities who are donors to civil rights groups or who belong to organizations the government might not approve of.
Ultimately, four and a half months after hearing arguments, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the NAACP. Writing the opinion was Justice John Marshall Harlan II and he said: “This Court has recognized the vital relationship between freedom to associate and privacy in one’s associations’. He went on to discuss the practical effect of compelling organizations to disclose their membership lists. In the case of the NAACP, according to Harlan, the organization proved that making known its members in the past exposed them to ‘economic reprisal, loss of employment, threat of physical coercion, and other manifestations of physical hostility.’ With those outcomes expected to recur, the court believed that forcing the NAACP to comply with the state court’s ruling would likely hinder it and its members from organizing and advocating their beliefs. The court added that compelling the disclosure of the NAACP’s membership might also encourage some individuals to leave the organization and discourage others from joining” (Brown, 6).
The ruling would have a long lasting impact on protecting the rights and privacy of organizations in the United States. During the time the ruling came down, the United States was in the middle of turbulent social times. There were many day-to-day risks to African Americans. Organizations, especially civil rights groups that had operations in Southern states, were potentially at risk of being in very real danger. If the privacy of members had to be given up and divulged, that might have tragic and harmful consequences for members. In its ruling the Supreme Court would lay out three important points, “just as people have a First Amendment right to express messages to the public, so they have the right to join together in groups to amplify their messages. They also have a right to support causes they believe in anonymously, in order to avoid harassment and intimidation. Finally, the government may only penetrate this veil of privacy if it has a compelling justification” (Goldwater, 22).
There are many ways the case of NAACP v. Alabama has helped to shape the way our nation protects privacy rights of organizations and civic groups. “Prior to this case the Court supported efforts by federal and state governments to investigate organizations that were alleged to be involved in subversive and unlawful activities. The NAACP case differed because the type of activities it was involved in did not cause harm to the government or society” (Franklin, 7). In his writing for the unanimous decision, Harlan noted that the NAACP did not cause harm to the government. Also, in response to the case, the NAACP had complied with much of what the state of Alabama had requested. However, membership lists were a bridge too far and that they must remain confidential in order to protect members from potential retaliation and unlawful attacks. Also, the ruling is still used in current day cases when regarding donor identity protection. “The ruling ensured that NAACP members could donate without fear of retaliation, an essential principle that nonprofits argue must still be protected” (Blankley, 2).
Over the past sixty years, the ruling of NAACP v. Alabama has proven to be very important and crucial to maintain privacy in the United States. Whether during the Civil Rights era or present-day, there are issues that are being brought up that this case is looked at for precedent and guidance on First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment cases. The words of Justice Harlan while writing the unanimous opinion are still used to provide privacy today.