Freedom of Association and Privacy

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was once considered far out of the political mainstream, especially in the South of the first half of the Twentieth Century. In that era, the non-profit organization employed political means to seek elimination of segregation in the South and political rights for black Americans. Some state governments attempted to put legal obstacles in the way of the NAACP.

There were laws with regard to the registration of out-of-state entities operating within some states. In 1956, the state of Alabama claimed that the NAACP was violating state law and demanded its membership list. The organization was reluctant to provide such a list. Some members might suffer repercussions because of their membership.

Despite some lower court losses for the NAACP, the case was ultimately heard by the Supreme Court. In a seminal decision the Court found in favor of the NAACP, concluding that forcing the organization to reveal its membership would violate the right of association by members of the NAACP. Specifically, the Justices found that “…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.’’ In other worss, via the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause, the NAACP could assert is First Amendment rights against the state of Alabama.

This history makes the Obama Administration’s recent attacks against the US Chamber of Commerce ironic. The US Chamber of Commerce like other non-profits such as the Sierra Club keeps its membership lists private, invoking the rights secured in the NAACP v. Alabama case. The Democratic Party has put out an ad asserting that the US Chamber of Commerce is using foreign money to influence campaigns. President Barack Obama has echoed the charges in his stump speech. According to CBS News, the Chamber has $200M budget, with only about $100,000 from foreign dues. This money is sequestered and the sequestration is monitored with audits. When questioned about whether the Administration had any evidence that there was foreign money diverted to elections, Presidential Advisor David Axelrod countered by asking if there was any proof that they did not. In addition, he demanded that the Chamber release its membership list.

Hence, in the short breath of a paragraph, Axelrod managed the Herculean tasks of ignoring the the presumption of innocence and violating the spirit of protection offered by the NAACP v. Alabama decision. No wonder he is such an valued political operative. This newly found concern about the hygiene of political contributions is made even more poignant by the fact that in 2008 the Washington Post ran a story headlined “Obama Accepting Untraceable Donations.’’ They reported:

“Sen. Barack Obama’s presidential campaign is allowing donors to use largely untraceable prepaid credit cards that could potentially be used to evade limits on how much an individual is legally allowed to give or to mask a contributor’s identity, campaign officials confirmed.’’

It is clear that the accusations of foreign influence charged in a Democratic Party campaign ad and by Axelrod’s statements represent a desperate political smear in the late stages of the mid-term election political campaign that does not appear to be going too well. However, the demand for the release of the membership lists of private organizations smacks of the same type mean-spirited political bullying in the South against Civil Rights Movement. When running for president, then Senator Barack Obama boasted, “I was a constitutional law professor, which means unlike the current president I actually respect the Constitution.’’ It is time that he demonstrate more the rhetorical support for Constitutional sensitivities.

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