Fifty-eight years ago last week, the Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment and the right of groups to protect their members’ identities. NAACP v. Alabama is a reminder that threats against free speech take many forms.
To quell the civil rights movement, Alabama ordered the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to reveal the names and addresses of its members. A tumultuous legal battle ensued and two courts sided with Alabama. Thankfully, on June 30, 1958, the Supreme Court unanimously sided with the NAACP and said that Alabama was violating its rights.
The court held that the government cannot force advocacy groups to disclose their members because it would violate their freedom of association. In the opinion of the court, Justice John Marshall Harlan II wrote that Alabama was trying to expose the NAACP’s “members to economic reprisal, loss of employment, threat of physical coercion, and other manifestations of public hostility.” Compelling disclosure would have likely affected the NAACP’s ability “to pursue their collective effort to foster beliefs which they admittedly have the right to advocate.”
This case was a resounding victory for the first amendment. Every person and group has the right to freely associate with others to advance a cause. Just like Alabama in 1958, there are many groups today that would rather shut down others instead of engaging in civil debate. The Founders faced this danger, so they hid their identities and wrote much of their writing anonymously.
Freedom of speech is foundational to the American experiment. It is worth remembering that attacks on free speech come in many forms, but their coercive nature never changes. Shutting down speakers is a violation of free speech. Likewise, forcing groups to reveal their supporters and members is also a violation of our sacred rights.