NAACP v. Button

371 U.S. 415, 83 S. Ct. 328 (1963)



The objectionable quality of vagueness and overbreadth does not depend upon absence of fair notice to a criminally accused or upon unchanneled delegation of legislative powers, but upon the danger of tolerating, in the area of U.S. Const. amend. I freedoms, the existence of a penal statute susceptible of sweeping and improper application. The threat of sanctions may deter their exercise almost as potently as the actual application of sanctions. Because First Amendment freedoms need breathing space to survive, government may regulate in the area only with narrow specificity.


National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Inc. (NAACP), hereinafter petitioner, was a nonprofit membership corporation which aimed to secure the elimination of all racial barriers which deprive Negro citizens of the privileges and burdens of equal citizenship rights in the United States. In order to attain this purpose, the Association engaged in extensive educational and lobbying activities. It also devoted much of its funds and energies to an extensive program of assisting certain kinds of litigation on behalf of its declared purposes. In 1956, U.S. Congress amended the existing Virginia Acts of Assembly by adding Chapter 33 of the statute. The said chapter amended former statutes defining and punishing malpractice by attorneys so as to broaden the definition of solicitation of legal business to include acceptance of employment or compensation from any person or organization not a party to a judicial proceeding and having no pecuniary right or liability in it. The statute also made it an offense for any such person or organization to solicit business for any attorney. Thereafter, petitioner instituted a case to enjoin enforcement of Chapter 33 of Virginia Acts of Assembly, alleging that as applied to petitioner, its affiliates, officers, members, attorneys retained or paid by it, and litigants whom it might give assistance in cases involving racial discrimination, the Chapter violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The trial court held the statute to be both constitutional and applicable to petitioner; the decision was affirmed by the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Petitioner then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari to review the decision of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.


Did Chapter 33 of existing Virginia Acts of Assembly violate the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Inc.’s (NAACP) rights under the Fourteenth Amendment?




The Court held that, under Chapter 33, as authoritatively construed by the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, a person who advises another that his legal rights have been infringed and refers him to a particular attorney or group of attorneys for assistance has committed a crime, as has the attorney who knowingly renders assistance under such circumstances; 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 Negroes; and, as so construed, Chapter 33 violates the Fourteenth Amendment by unduly inhibiting protected freedoms of expression and association. According to the Supreme Court, it is no answer to the constitutional claims asserted by petitioner to say, as did the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, that the purpose of this statute was merely to insure high professional standards and not to curtail freedom of expression, for a State may not, under the guise of prohibiting professional misconduct, ignore constitutional rights. However valid may be Virginia's interest in regulating the traditionally illegal practices of barratry, maintenance and champerty, the Court concluded that the state’s interest does not justify the prohibition of petitioner's activities disclosed by the record.

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