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National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Button

State's Interests Do Not Justify Suppression Of Speech

The Court rejected Virginia's first claim that "solicitation" was not protected by the First Amendment. "[T]he First Amendment," Justice Brennan wrote, delivering the majority decision, " . . . protects vigorous advocacy, certainly of lawful ends, against government intrusion." Arguing against a narrow interpretation of speech and assembly, he pointed to the decision in National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Alabama (1958), which protected the right "to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas." He pointed out that some minorities cannot reach their goals by voting, and these groups often rightly turn to litigation, which may then become their most meaningful form of political association.

The Court also found the statute so vague that "solicitation" could be interpreted as a simple referral to an attorney. The danger presented here was that it would be illegal to tell people that their rights were being violated and then direct them to a particular lawyer. "There thus inheres in the statute the gravest danger of smothering all discussion looking to the eventual institution of litigation on behalf of the rights of members of an unpopular minority." Furthermore, a vague law may easily be used to oppress unpopular groups. Given the racially polarized political climate in Virginia at the time, the statute could have struck a great blow to the civil rights movement. (Justice Douglas, in his concurrence, noted that in fact the act was "not applied across the board to all groups that use this method of obtaining and managing litigation, but instead reflects a legislative purpose to penalize the NAACP because it promotes desegregation of the races.")

Virginia's second claim was that states traditionally had a legitimate interest in regulating professional conduct. Barratry, persistent incitement of litigation; maintenance, unlawful interference in a suit by providing money to either part; and champerty, assistance by someone outside the suit in exchange for a share of the matter in suit; had never been protected behavior. The Court agreed that the state had a valid interest, but an interest in maintaining proper professional behavior did not outweigh constitutional rights.

The NAACP's behavior did not meet traditional criteria for unprofessional legal conduct--it was neither malicious, avaricious, nor harmful to the public. As the Court pointed out, "Lawsuits attacking racial discrimination, at least in Virginia, are neither very profitable nor very popular." The NAACP, rather than seeking personal gain for its attorneys, aimed to vindicate the constitutional rights of its clients. Therefore, the state's regulation was not important enough to justify overruling freedom of speech. The Court ruled for the petitioner.

Justice White concurred in part and dissented in part. He agreed with the Court that the Virginia statute was unconstitutional. However, he agreed with the dissent that the actual legal practices of the NAACP were subject to regulation.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Button - The Battle For Desegregation, The Naacp Sues, Petitioner's Claims, State's Interests Do Not Justify Suppression Of Speech