The Strange Origins of the Constitutional Right of Association
Although much has been written about the freedom of association and its ongoing importance to the American experiment, much recent scholarship mistakenly relies on a truncated history that begins Roberts v. United States Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609 (1984), the case that divided constitutional association into intimate and expressive components and introduced the paradigm that continues today. Roberts’s doctrinal framework has been rightly criticized. But neither the right of association nor all of its doctrinal problems start with Roberts. The Court’s foray into the constitutional right of association began a generation earlier, in its 1958 decision, NAACP v. Alabama. This Article offers a new look at the Court’s initial approach to the right of association. I highlight three factors that influenced the shaping of association: (1) the conflation of rampant anti-communist sentiment with the rise of the civil rights movement (a political factor); (2) infighting on the Court over the proper way to ground the right of association in the Constitution and the relationship between association and assembly (a jurisprudential factor); and (3) the pluralist political theory of mid-twentieth century liberalism that emphasized the importance of consensus, balance, and stability (a theoretical factor). I suggest how these factors shaped a right of association with an ambiguous constitutional anchor and an ill-defined doctrinal framework. Despite its shortcomings, the right of association quickly took hold in legal and political discourse and handed the Court a resource that has arguably become more responsive to political pressure than constitutional principle. Part of that whimsicality stems from the Court’s reformulation of the right of association in Roberts. But Roberts cannot bear all of the blame. If today’s freedom of association is less than we might like it to be, the roots of its problems may lie in the political, jurisprudential, and theoretical factors present at its inception.