NAACP v. Button (1963)


Following the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that declared racial segregation in public education unconstitutional and the Court’s order, issued one year later, that all-white public schools desegregate “at all deliberate speed,” lawyers for the NAACP’s Virginia Conference assisted plaintiffs in bringing integration lawsuits against local school boards. In response, the Virginia General Assembly passed a series of statutes, known as the Stanley Plan, that empowered the governor and other state officials to resist public school desegregation and curtail the legal activities of the NAACP in the state. This included laws aimed at stopping desegregation campaigns by requiring organizations dealing with racial issues to register and share membership rolls with the state and targeting the Association’s lawyers for “stirring up litigation.” In an amended section known as Chapter 33, the General Assembly broadened a ban on the “improper solicitation of any legal or professional business” to include the NAACP. In a series of state and federal court cases that followed, much of the Stanley Plan was struck down as unconstitutional. To stop Chapter 33 from being enforced, the NAACP filed suit in circuit court, arguing that the statute deprived it of due process, violated its right of equal protection, and curbed its First Amendment freedoms of speech and association as protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. The Virginia Court of Appeals upheld Chapter 33, so the NAACP petitioned the Supreme Court to consider the case. In January of 1963, the Court dismissed the NAACP’s due process and equal protection claims, but found that its freedoms of speech and association had been violated and struck down Chapter 33. In pointing out that African Americans and other minority groups could not simply reach their goals by voting, the Court held that they had a right to utilize litigation and that Virginia’s broad definition of solicitation interfered with the ability of attorneys to tell people their rights were being violated. In the years that followed, the Court built upon the decision in Button to protect the right of labor unions and other groups to refer their members to attorneys.

Constitutional Issue Raised in the Case

Did the Virginia Acts of Assembly violate the NAACP’s rights of expression and association protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments?

Citation and Decision

NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415 (1963) | Full Decision

In a 6-3 decision, the Court held that the activities of the NAACP and its lawyers were protected under the rights of expression and association which Virginia could not prohibit as improper solicitation of legal business. Writing for the majority, Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. stated that the First Amendment protects “vigorous advocacy, certainly of lawful ends, against government intrusion” and that in the context of the NAACP’s objectives, “litigation is a form of political expression.” Justice John Marshall dissented, joined by justices Potter Stewart and Tom Clark.

Discussion Questions

1. How did Virginia officials interpret the phrase “all deliberate speed” in Brown II, and how did they transform that interpretation into policy?

2. Who was Harry F. Byrd and why was he so important to the history of massive resistance in Virginia?

3. How might being forced to share its membership rolls with state officials have impacted the NAACP?

4. Why did the justices dismiss the NAACP’s due process and equal protection claims?

5. What is the legacy of this case? How did it inform cases that followed regarding the rights of organizations to refer their members to legal representation?