NAACP v. Patterson,
357 U.S. 449 (1958)

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U.S. Supreme Court

NAACP v. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449 (1958)

National Association for the Advancement of

Colored People v. Patterson

No. 91

Argued January 15-16, 1958

Decided June 30, 1958

357 U.S. 449


Petitioner is a nonprofit membership corporation organized under the laws of New York for the purpose of advancing the welfare of Negroes. It operates through chartered affiliates which are independent unincorporated associations, with membership therein equivalent to membership in petitioner. It had local affiliates in Alabama, and opened an office of its own there without complying with an Alabama statute which, with some exceptions, requires a foreign corporation to qualify before doing business in the State by filing its corporate charter and designating a place of business and an agent to receive service of process. Alleging that petitioner's activities were causing irreparable injury to the citizens of the State for which criminal prosecution and civil actions at law afforded no adequate relief, the State brought an equity suit in a state court to enjoin petitioner from conducting further activities in, and to oust it from, the State. The court issued an ex parte order restraining petitioner, pendente lite, from engaging in further activities in the State and from taking any steps to qualify to do business there. Petitioner moved to dissolve the restraining order, and the court, on the State's motion, ordered the production of many of petitioner's records, including its membership lists. After some delay, petitioner produced substantially all the data called for except its membership lists. It was adjudged in contempt, and fined $100,000 for failure to produce the lists. The State Supreme Court denied certiorari to review the contempt judgment, and this Court granted certiorari.


1. Denial of relief by the State Supreme Court did not rest on an adequate state ground, and this Court has jurisdiction to entertain petitioner's federal claims. Pp. 357 U. S. 454-458.

2. Petitioner has a right to assert on behalf of its members a claim that they are entitled under the Federal Constitution to be protected from being compelled by the State to disclose their affiliation with the Association. Pp. 357 U. S. 458-460.

Page 357 U. S. 450

3. Immunity from state scrutiny of petitioner's membership lists is here so related to the right of petitioner's members to pursue their lawful private interests privately and to associate freely with others in doing so as to come within the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment. The State has failed to show a controlling justification for the deterrent effect on the free enjoyment of the right to associate which disclosure of petitioner's membership lists is likely to have. Accordingly, the judgment of civil contempt and the fine which resulted from petitioner's refusal to produce its membership lists must fall. Pp. 357 U. S. 460-466.

(a) Freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the "liberty" assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 357 U. S. 460-461.

(b) In the circumstances of this case, compelled disclosure of petitioner's membership lists is likely to constitute an effective restraint on its members' freedom of association. Pp. 357 U. S. 461-463.

(c) Whatever interest the State may have in obtaining the names of petitioner's ordinary members, it has not been shown to be sufficient to overcome petitioner's constitutional objections to the production order. Pp. 357 U. S. 463-466.

4. The question whether the state court's temporary restraining order preventing petitioner from soliciting support in the State violates the Fourteenth Amendment is not properly before this Court, since the merits of the controversy have not been passed on by the state courts. Pp. 357 U. S. 466-467.

265 Ala. 349, 91 So.2d 214, reversed, and cause remanded.

Page 357 U. S. 451

Primary Holding

To require disclosure of an association's membership lists, a state must have a compelling justification for this infringement on the right of free association.


Alabama imposed a qualification requirement on entities from outside the state that they needed to satisfy before doing business there. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was a New York non-profit corporation, believed that the statute did not cover it and thus did not comply with it. The NAACP participated in several civil rights activities in Alabama during the 1950s, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott and funding programs for African-American students seeking to attend the state university. In response, state Attorney General Patterson sought to have the state court remove the NAACP from the state for violating the law on out-of-state corporations. Tellingly, the court order that was sought and that issued almost immediately not only forbade the NAACP to continue doing business in Alabama but also prohibited it from trying to qualify under the law.

As the organization pointed out, the lawsuit seemed to be a fairly transparent attempt to curtail its First Amendment rights, rather than merely an effort to enforce the business law. The NAACP refused to comply with a court order to provide the names and addresses of its Alabama agents and members, although it offered to try to meet the qualification requirements. However, its failure to comply with the discovery order meant that it was held in contempt. The NAACP tried to dismiss this order but was prevented under state law from attempting to dismiss an order while it remained in contempt.

On its first visit to the Supreme Court, the contempt finding was struck down. Arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court made that decision based on inaccurate information, the state Supreme Court reinstated it. The U.S. Supreme Court again reversed, at which stage the NAACP tried to arrange a hearing on the merits. This was denied at the state-court level and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case was remanded to state court and placed within the authority of the federal district court in the event that the state courts continued to resist. When the Alabama court did review the case on the merits, it found the NAACP in violation of the state law and ordered it to cease activities there. Higher courts affirmed the judgment without addressing the NAACP's constitutional claim, so the case proceeded to the U.S. Supreme Court for the fourth time in five years.


  • Robert L. Carter (plaintiffs)



  • John Marshall Harlan II (Author)
  • Earl Warren
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • Felix Frankfurter
  • William Orville Douglas
  • Harold Hitz Burton
  • Tom C. Clark
  • John Marshall Harlan II
  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr.
  • Charles Evans Whittaker

This unanimous opinion ruled that the NAACP was not required to release its membership list to the state because of the danger to which losing their anonymity would expose the members. Their First and Fourteenth Amendment right to freedom of association furthermore trumped state law, and revealing the names could be expected to interfere with that right. While the state may have had an interest in gaining access to the names, this was not sufficient to counterbalance constitutional protections.

Case Commentary

The right of freedom of association would be unreasonably constricted by requiring disclosure of the names in this context because people would be less likely to join the NAACP in Alabama under the fear that they would be the victims of retaliation.

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