372 U.S. 539 (1963), 6, Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Committee

Docket Nº:No. 6
Citation:372 U.S. 539, 83 S.Ct. 889, 9 L.Ed.2d 929
Party Name:Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Committee
Case Date:March 25, 1963
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 539

372 U.S. 539 (1963)

83 S.Ct. 889, 9 L.Ed.2d 929



Florida Legislative Investigation Committee

No. 6

United States Supreme Court

March 25, 1963

Argued December 5, 1961

Restored to the calendar for reargument April 2, 1962

Reargued October 10-11, 1962



In a Florida State Court, petitioner, who was president of the Miami Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was adjudged in contempt and sentenced to fine and imprisonment for refusing to divulge contents of the membership records of that Branch to a committee created by the Florida Legislature, which was investigating the infiltration of Communists into various organizations. There was no suggestion that the Association or its Miami Branch was a subversive organization, or that either was Communist dominated or influenced. The purpose of the questions asked petitioner was to ascertain whether 14 persons previously identified as Communists or members of Communist front or affiliated organizations were members of the Miami Branch of the Association. The principal evidence relied upon to show any relationship between the Association and subversive or Communist activities was indirect, ambiguous, and mostly hearsay testimony by two witnesses that, in years past, those 14 persons had attended occasional meetings of the Miami Branch of the Association "and/or" were members of that Branch, which had about 1,000 members.

Held: on the record in this case, petitioner's conviction of contempt for refusal to divulge information contained in the membership lists of the Association violated rights of association protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 540-558.

1. When, as in this case, the claim is made that a legislative investigation intrudes upon First and Fourteenth Amendment associational rights of individuals, the State must show convincingly a substantial relation between the information sought and a subject of overriding and compelling state interest. Pp. 543-546.

2. Barenblatt v. United States, 360 U.S. 109; Wilkinson v. United States, 365 U.S. 399; Braden v. United States, 365 U.S. 431; and Uphaus v. Wyman, 360 U.S. 72, distinguished. Pp. 547-550.

Page 540

3. An adequate foundation for inquiry must be laid before a legislative investigation proceeds in such a manner as will substantially intrude upon and severely curtail or inhibit constitutionally protected associational rights, and the record in this case is not sufficient to show a substantial connection between the Miami Branch of the Association and Communist activities, or to demonstrate a compelling and subordinating state interest necessary to sustain the State's right to inquire into the membership lists of the Association. Pp. 550-557.

4. Groups which themselves are neither engaged in subversive or other illegal or improper activities nor demonstrated to have any substantial connections with such activities must be protected in their rights of free and private association guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 557-558.

126 So.2d 129, reversed.

Page 541

GOLDBERG, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE GOLDBERG, delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case is the culmination of protracted litigation involving legislative investigating committees of the State of Florida and the Miami branch of the [83 S.Ct. 891] National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The origins of the controversy date from 1956, when a committee of the Florida Legislature commenced an investigation of the NAACP. Upon expiration of this committee's authority, a new committee was established to pursue the inquiry. The new committee, created in 1957, held hearings and sought by subpoena to obtain the entire membership list of the Miami branch of the NAACP; production was refused, and the committee obtained a court order requiring that the list be submitted. On appeal, the Florida Supreme Court held that the committee could not require production and disclosure of the entire membership list of the organization, but that it could compel the custodian of the records to bring them to the hearings and to refer to them to determine whether specific individuals, otherwise identified as, or "suspected of being," Communists, were NAACP members. 108 So.2d 729, cert. denied, 360 U.S. 919.

Because of the impending expiration of the authority of the 1957 committee, the Florida Legislature, in 1959, established the respondent Legislative Investigation Committee to resume the investigation of the NAACP. The authorizing statute, c. 59-207, Fla.Laws 1959, defining the purpose and operations of the respondent, declared:

It shall be the duty of the committee to make as complete an investigation as time permits of all organizations whose principles or activities include a course of conduct on the part of any person or group which would constitute violence, or a violation of the laws of the state, or would be inimical to the wellbeing and orderly pursuit of their personal and business activities by the majority of the citizens of this state. . . .1

Page 542

The petitioner, then president of the Miami branch of the NAACP, was ordered to appear before the respondent Committee on November 4, 1959, and, in accordance with the prior decision of the Florida Supreme Court, to bring with him records of the association which were in his possession or custody and which pertained to the identity of members of, and contributors to, the Miami and state NAACP organizations. Prior to interrogation of any witnesses, the Committee chairman read the text of the statute creating the Committee and declared that the hearings would be

concerned with the activities of various organizations which have been or are presently operating in this State in the fields of, first, race relations; second, the coercive reform of social and educational practices and mores by litigation and pressured administrative action; third, of labor; fourth, of education; fifth, and other vital phases of life in this State.

The chairman also stated that the inquiry would be directed to Communists and Communist activities, including infiltration of Communists into organizations operating in the described fields.

[83 S.Ct. 892] Upon being called to the stand, the petitioner admitted that he was custodian of his organization's membership records, and testified that the local group had about 1,000 members, that individual membership was renewed annually, and that the only membership lists maintained were those for the then current year.

The petitioner told the Committee that he had not brought these records with him to the hearing, and announced that he would not produce them for the purpose of answering questions concerning membership in

Page 543

the NAACP. He did, however, volunteer to answer such questions on the basis of his own personal knowledge; when given the names and shown photographs of 14 persons previously identified as Communists or members of Communist front or affiliated organizations, the petitioner said that he could associate none of them with the NAACP.

The petitioner's refusal to produce his organization's membership lists was based on the ground that to bring the lists to the hearing and to utilize them as the basis of his testimony would interfere with the free exercise of Fourteenth Amendment associational rights of members and prospective members of the NAACP.

In accordance with Florida procedure, the petitioner was brought before a state court and, after a hearing, was adjudged in contempt, and sentenced to six months' imprisonment and fined $1,200, or, in default in payment thereof, sentenced to an additional six months' imprisonment. The Florida Supreme Court sustained the judgment below, 126 So.2d 129, and this Court granted certiorari, 366 U.S. 917; the case was argued last Term and restored to the calendar for reargument this Term, 369 U.S. 834.


We are here called upon once again to resolve a conflict between individual rights of free speech and association and governmental interest in conducting legislative investigations. Prior decisions illumine the contending principles.

This Court has repeatedly held that rights of association are within the ambit of the constitutional protections afforded by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U.S. 449; Bates v. Little Rock, 361 U.S. 516; Shelton v. Tucker, 364 U.S. 479; NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415. The respondent Committee

Page 544

does not contend otherwise, nor could it, for, as was said in NAACP v. Alabama, supra,

It is beyond debate that 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, which embraces freedom of speech.

357 U.S. at 460. And it is equally clear that the guarantee encompasses protection of privacy of association in organizations such as that of which the petitioner is president; indeed, in both the Bates and Alabama cases, supra, this Court held NAACP membership lists of the very type here in question to be beyond the States' power of discovery in the circumstances there presented.

The First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of free speech and free association are fundamental and highly prized, and "need breathing space to survive." NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415, 433.

Freedoms such as these are protected not only against heavy-handed frontal attack, but also from being stifled by more subtle governmental interference.

Bates v. Little Rock, supra, 361 U.S. at 523. And, as declared in NAACP v. Alabama, supra, 357 U.S. at 462

It is hardly a...

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