NEWS & ANALYSIS

Supreme Court Upholds Freedom of Association


Freedom of association is one of the most basic guaranteed human rights. It ensures that everyone is free to organize and participate in groups, whether formally or informally. Freedom of association — unlike the rights of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition — is a right not written in the First Amendment, but it is still recognized by the courts as a fundamental right. The right to freedom of association covers organized and professional organizations like political parties, trade unions, public associations and non-governmental organizations with employees. It also covers organizations based on volunteers, and covers groups and entities with or without a legal sector, according to Human Rights House. 

On Thursday, the Supreme Court held by a 6 to 3 majority that California violated the right to freedom of association by demanding that charitable organizations disclose their major donors as a condition of fundraising, the Daily Signal reports. 

Charities in California that solicit donations are required by state law to register and provide reports that include their IRS Form 990. While most of that information is public, federal law requires that “Schedule B,” which lists an organization’s “substantial donors,” be kept confidential. 

Americans for Prosperity and the Thomas More Law Center refused to provide this information to the state and sued California. 

They argued that the request for sensitive information violates the right of association. 

The Supreme Court found that California’s reason for demanding the private information was convenience, “close at hand, just in case” it might be useful,” which does not justify the risk. 

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in dissent that the majority had actually abandoned, rather than applied, the court’s precedents. She argued that, under previous decisions, “reporting and disclosure requirements do not directly burden associational rights.” 

“The deterrent effect feared by these organizations is real and pervasive,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “When it comes to the freedom of association, the protections of the First Amendment are triggered not only by actual restrictions on an individual’s ability to join with others to further shared goals. The risk of a chilling effect on association is enough.”