Freedom of Association and Assembly / Protests
Vajnai v. Hungary
Closed Expands Expression
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The United States Supreme Court found that political protest through a boycott is protected under the First Amendment. An NAACP organized boycott targeted white merchants in a Mississippi area after elected officials failed to respond to demands for integration and racial equality. The lawsuit was brought by these merchants to recover business losses and put an end to the boycott. The Court found the boycott, which also included peaceful picketing, assembly, marching, and advocacy campaigns, to be a form of political speech entitled to protection under the First Amendment. The Court further recognized that just because some individuals may commit violent unlawful acts in the name of a protest, the entire protest is not necessarily unlawful. The Court denied awarding compensation for economic losses related to nonviolent, protected political activity.
This case involved a boycott by a group of individuals (collectively “the boycotters” or “the protesters”) in Mississippi organized in part by the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) against white business owners in Claiborne County, Mississippi, after elected officials failed to meet the protesters’ demands for equality and an end to segregation. A “boycott” is when an individual or group of people refuse to do business or interact with a party as a form of protest or punishment. One protester, Charles Evers, played a pivotal role leading the boycott by presiding at meetings and delivering speeches.
Claiborne Hardware Company and several other boycotted merchants (collectively “the merchants” or “the businesses”) filed suit in chancery court to recover business losses as a result of the boycott. The protesters argued the boycotts were speech protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The court rejected that argument, finding 130 defendant protesters guilty for the tort of malicious interference with business relations, and a violation of a state statute against secondary boycotts. A secondary boycott is a boycott against an entity other than the primary offending party: the merchants in this case.
The court also issued a permanent injunction prohibiting the protesters from posting “store watchers” at the premises of the boycotted businesses; persuading others to withhold patronage from the boycotted businesses; “using demeaning or obscene language to or about any person” for continuing to patronize the boycotted merchants; “picketing or patrolling” the premises of the boycotted businesses; and “using violence against any person or inflicting damage to any real or personal property.” (at p. 893, quoting the NAACP’s petition for certiorari)
The decision was appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which reversed in part and affirmed in part. The court upheld liability under the tort of malicious interference, finding that if force, violence, or threats are involved in any way, then a boycott is unlawful in its entirety. The court also found no free speech protection under the First Amendment for commission of a crime. The court dismissed charges against 75 of the defendant protesters for lack of proof. The NAACP appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court.
Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the United States Supreme Court, reversing the decision of the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The Court first examined whether a boycott was a form of speech entitled to protection under the First Amendment. The First Amendment (as applied to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment) forbids the government from infringing upon the freedom of speech. In previous cases, the Court had found peaceful picketing, peaceful marching, and peaceful demonstration — activities that were all elements of the boycott — all protectable under the First Amendment. The protesters also used speech to encourage others to join the boycott, as well as to provide social pressure by announcing the names of individuals who had not joined the boycott. Speech that is coercive or embarrassing does not necessarily lose its constitutional protections. Therefore, the Court found that the boycott was a form of political speech entitled to protection under the First Amendment.
The Court recognized that States have powers to regulate economic activity, especially unfair trade practices, insofar as any regulation minimally impacts freedom of expression and association. By way of example, the Court discussed NLRB v. Retail Store Employees (447 U. S. 607 at 617-618) and Longshoremen v. Allied International, Inc. (456 U. S. 212, 222-223, and n. 20) as instances when secondary boycotts may be prohibited to strike a balance between the freedom of expression of unions and those of neutral parties who wish to “remain free from coerced participation in industrial strife.” (pp. 912)
In the present case, the Court found that while the boycott may have negatively impacted local businesses, it was part of broader peaceful political activity on an issue of public significance: “Through speech, assembly, and petition-rather than through riot or revolution-petitioners sought to change a social order that had consistently treated them as second-class citizens.” (pp. 907-912)
However, the boycott also involved actions by some individuals that were violent or threatening — conduct that may not receive protection under the First Amendment. The distinction the Supreme Court made was that the “right to associate does not lose all constitutional protection merely because some members of the group may have participated in conduct or advocated doctrine that itself is not protected.” (at p. 908) The lower court was essentially criminalizing mere peaceful protest by imposing liability on the boycotters who had not committed acts of violence or threats. The Court found that all the speech-related activities engaged in by the boycotters fell under the protection of the First Amendment. Next, the Court looked at whether Mississippi’s restriction of the protected speech was justified. When speech is concerned, the standard required for the government to act is strict, and debate on public issues is to be viewed with the highest protections of the First Amendment. The Court found no governmental justification for restricting the lawful speech activities engaged in by the protesters related to the boycott. However, the Court did not preclude liability for any acts of violence committed during the course of the boycotts, as violence does not fall under the umbrella of protection established through the First Amendment. To impose liability for violent acts, those acts must have directly caused the alleged harm. The Court could not find that the isolated violent incidents arising from the protests proximately caused business losses several years after the incidents. The Court maintained that the acts of violence could be punished under the law, but the business losses alleged as damages were too attenuated to those punishable actions.
The Court then turned to the lawsuit against Charles Evers individually. The Court found that Evers could only be held liable if he either directed acts of violence, incited lawless action with his speeches, or gave specific actions to carry out violent acts as evidenced by his speeches. While “fighting words” are not within the purview of the First Amendment (i.e., unprotected), “mere advocacy of the use of force or violence does not remove speech from the protection of the First Amendment.” (at p. 927 (emphasis added)) The Court found Evers’ speeches to be mere advocacy and therefore not punishable by the government as fighting words.
Finally, the Court turned to the NACCP itself, for whom the lower court derived liability from the acts of Evers. The Court easily rejected liability for the NACCP, as the organization had no knowledge of violence being carried out during the boycott and therefore could not have ratified or encouraged such conduct. The Court reversed the judgment of the Mississippi Supreme Court, and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the Supreme Court’s opinion.
Rehnquist, J., concurred in the result with no written opinion.
Marshall, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This is a precedential decision, as it upholds the important free speech right to peaceful protest in the form of a boycott. The Court specifically noted that otherwise lawless activity is not protected under the First Amendment, but just because lawless activity occurs during a lawful protest does not mean the entire protest becomes unlawful.
As Justice Stevens’ stated in his opinion, a “court must be wary of a claim that the true color of a forest is better revealed by reptiles hidden in the weeds than by the foliage of countless freestanding trees.” (at p. 934)
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
As a decision of the Supreme Court, this decision binds all courts in the United States.
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