Monday, June 30, 2008

Landmark US Supreme Court privacy decision turns 50

A landmark US Supreme Court decision on privacy, NAACP v. Alabama ex. Rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449 (1958), is 50 years old today. Anita Allen, professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, has written a terrific essay on the case which privacy advocates everywhere should read.

It is almost hard to believe that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, was considered a dangerous radical group, particularly in the southern states of the US, for a large part of the 20th century, when all they were asking for was equal rights. The state of Alabama tried to expel the group on the legal technicality of not complying with corporate registration laws. There followed a series of legal proceedings which culminated in the state demanding the details of all NAACP members. The NAACP rightly refused to comply - as members faced risk of serious injury, damage to property and even death - and got fined the huge sum of $100,000 by the state courts. At this point the NAACP appealed to the US Supreme Court and the rest, as they say, is history.

From Professor Allen's esasy:

"The United States Supreme Court’s decision in NAACP v. Alabama ex. Rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449 (1958) turns 50 this year. For those who value privacy it is a birthday worth remembering.

In NAACP v. Alabama, the Court affirmed that the constitutional rights of speech and assembly include a right of private group association. The idea that Americans are free to join private groups was not new in 1958. However, the Court’s decision to allow private groups to keep membership information confidential was an important constitutional milestone.

In 1956, the state of Alabama demanded a copy of the NAACP’s membership list, as part of its effort to expel the group from the state for allegedly violating a state business law. But the Supreme Court held that the civil rights group had a right to keep its members’ identities secret, whether or not a technical business law had been broken. Revealing the group’s membership, argued the Court, “is likely to affect adversely the ability of [the NAACP] 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.” NAACP at 462-63.

Whether handwritten on lined paper or stored electronically in a computer system, membership data is constitutionally protected from mandatory disclosure.

Individuals who join forces with others can sleep comfortably knowing they have a constitutional right to privacy that minimizes the risk of reprisal flowing from group membership. Any peaceful religious, social or political organization with a sensitive or unpopular mission can promise meaningful confidentiality and anonymity to members.

No constitutional right is absolute, however. The right to maintain membership data in secrecy is not perfectly guaranteed. But the Court reassuringly characterized official demands for membership lists as substantial restraints on freedom of association. As such, courts must strike them down unless they are narrowly tailored and necessary to further a compelling state interest. NAACP at 463-66."

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