Right/Freedom of Association/Legal Codification

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Freedom of Association

Is this right enshrined in international and regional human rights treaties? 🖉 edit

Yes. It is protected explicitly in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the American Convention on Human Rights.

Specifically, free association is upheld by Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which claims, “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”Additionally, it is enshrined in Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which claims “ Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association; No one may be compelled to belong to an association.” In Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the rights to association are specifically outlined, as it upholds “In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Lastly, The International Labor Organization similarly supports freedom of association in the 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, which asserts that all members have “freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;”

Is it contained in the US Constitution? 🖉 edit


The right to free association is not explicitly stated in the United States Constitution. Though, The Supreme Court has historically upheld the constitutional right to free association, invoking the Fourteenth and First Amendments (Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School). In 1958, The NAACP v. Patterson ruling established this precedent. In response to Alabama’s aims to limit the NAACP’s business within the state, the Supreme Court ruled that it was “the right of petitioner's members to pursue their lawful private interests privately and to associate freely with others in doing so as to come within the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment” (Oyez). Furthermore, the court asserted that freedom of association was undoubtedly covered by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (Oyez), which asserts no individual may be “"deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” The court additionally demonstrated the First Amendment to protect free association, Justice Harlan claiming “Effective advocacy of both public and private points of view, particularly controversial ones, is undeniably enhanced by group association, as this Court has more than once recognized by remarking upon the close nexus between the freedoms of speech and assembly.” Thus, while the right to free association is not explicitly described by the Constitution, as witnessed in NAACP v. Patterson, it is upheld by American constitutional law.


Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute, “First Amendment”: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/first_amendment

Has it been interpreted as being implicit in the US Constitution? 🖉 edit

Since the 1950s and 60s, SCOTUS has, to an extent, ruled that the speech and assembly rights imply a right to associate, especially for politically expressive purposes. For example, it ruled in NAACP v. Alabama that the NAACP cannot be forced to submit a membership roster to a state government. In 2000, in Boy Scouts v. Dale, the court held that the Boy Scouts could exclude gay members (in violation of state non-dsicrimination laws) because not being able to do so would undermine their ability to express a viewpoint - expressive association.

In Roberts v. US Jaycees, an organization for young business leaders’ ban on female members was challenged because it violated state non-discrimination law. This case is notable because the court identified a new form of association: intimate association. The opinion of the court states that “certain intimate human relationships be secured against undue intrusion by the State because of the role of such relationships in safeguarding the individual freedom that is central to our constitutional scheme.” The opinion places this right under the general aims of the First Amendment. The court ruled against the organization, but in so doing, it established the idea that Americans have the right to free intimate and expressive association. Still, one could argue that in a state with true freedom to associate, any group of people would be able to enact whatever membership restrictions it wanted, regardless of whether or not it falls into the categories of “expressive” or “intimate.”

Although assembly is the First-Amendment freedom that most seems to correspond with association, SCOTUS has not derived free association this way. Rather, it uses a more nebulous combination of various First-Amendment rights. As the majority held in NAACP v. Button, “It is not necessary to subsume such activity under a narrow, literal conception of freedom of speech, petition or assembly, for there is no longer any doubt that the First and Fourteenth Amendments protect certain forms of orderly group activity.”


Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U. S. 640

NAACP v. Alabama, 357 U. S. 449

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

Roberts v. United States Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609 (1984)

Are there any exceptions in American law to this right? 🖉 edit

Yes. As seen in Roberts v. US Jaycees, the right may be weighed against other state interests, especially when the association in question is neither expressive nor intimate. In that case, free association rights were curtailed to ensure adherence to non-discrimination laws.

Additionally, a significant exception to free association rights in the United States is witnessed through legislation regarding political parties. For example, in New York State Board of Elections vs. Lopez Torres, the court claimed,

A political party has a First Amendment right to limit its membership as it wishes, and to choose a candidate-selection process that will in its view produce the nominee who best represents its political platform. These rights are circumscribed, however, when the state gives a party a role in the election process...Then for example, the party’s racially discriminatory action may become state action that violates the Fifteenth Amendment Demonstrated by New York State Board of Elections vs. Lopez Torres, if a party associates with discriminatory or racist behavior, it cannot be involved in the state’s election process, demonstrating a limitation on free political association.

Additionally, sections of the Federal Election Campaign Act are often interpreted to be exceptions to free association, as they require the public disclosure of individuals’ political donations. This position was echoed by the Buckley v. Valeo ruling, where the Supreme Court argued that new campaign finance laws, “impose significantly more severe restrictions on protected freedom of political expression and association than do its limitations on financial contributions.” Thus, witnessed by Buckley v. Valeo, campaign finance laws may be interpreted as an exception to free association, as one cannot privately financially contribute to the political party they associate with.

Within universities, freedom of association, specifically the right to associate as an exclusive religious group, may be regulated by anti-discrimination clauses. This was observed in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, where the court ruled in favor of Hastings’ College of Law’s anti-discrimintation policies, which prohibited Christian student group’s from excluding non-christians. Therefore, on university campuses, individuals must be able join any student group, regardless of their religious association. Ultimately, this decision restricted the parameters of free association, as one cannot actively discriminate on the basis of it.

Consequently, decided by Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, certain groups can legally exclude individuals from associating with them. Furthermore, if an individual’s beliefs do not coincide with the group’s mission, the individual may be prohibited from membership. Specifically, the court claimed that by mandating the Boston Veterans’ Council to include Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual individuals in their parade, the Massachusetts State Court, “violates the fundamental First Amendment rule that a speaker has the autonomy to choose the content of his own message and, conversely, to decide what not to say.” Thus, while still restricting free association, the ruling counters Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, as individuals can be restricted from associating with certain groups if it is deemed that their identity does not conform to the group’s platform. Ultimately, these exceptions arise from the implicit nature of the freedom of association within the Constitution, as what qualifies as “association” is highly subject to interpretation by Supreme Court justices. For this reason, depending on who is sitting on the bench, freedom of association can be left unchecked or potentially be highly restricted.


Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976)

Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, 561 U.S. 661 (2010),

Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, 515 U.S. 557 (1995),

New York State Board of Elections v. Lopez Torres, 552 U.S. 196 (2008)

Roberts v. United States Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609 (1984)

Is this right protected in the Constitutions of most countries today? 🖉 edit

Constitutions written after 1900 very often protect free association.

As the right to free association is upheld by numerous United Nations treaties, for example, the European Convention on Human Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it would be expected that most countries maintain legal provisions protecting it. Though, investigated by UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai, many countries enforce legislation that explicitly restricts civilians’ entitlements to free association (International Center for Not-for-Profit Law).

For example, noted by Kiai, in Malaysia, the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 bans individuals under the age of twenty one from organizing public demonstrations. Additionally, stipulated by the same act, children under the age of fifteen cannot participate in demonstrations. Article 33 of the Constitution of Mexico, Kiai asserts, prohibits foreigners from engaging with Mexican politics. Similarly, Kiai notes that in Myanmar, Article 354 prohibits foreigners from assembling. Through these various forms of legislation, political and social association are highly restricted, as individuals are prohibited from expressing their associations through protest and civic engagement.

Additionally, Kiai presents how legal restrictions on sexual orientation limit free association in several countries. For example, in Russia, a ban on gay pride parades was upheld by Moscow’s city council in 2012. Likewise, in Nigeria, the President ushered in the Same Sex Marriage Act in 2014, prohibting gay marriage and the ability to “participate in or support gay clubs, societies, organizations, processions or meeting.” Kiai notes a similar anti-homosexuality law was signed by Uganda’s president in 2014. Demonstrated by these numerous legal restrictions to homosexuality, free association is unprotected in numerous countries, as one can often be punished for associating with a specific sexual orientation.

In the remainder of his report, Kiai continues to elaborate on numerous legal provisions that restrict free association. For example, Kiai notes how both Chile and Turkey utilize counter-terrorism legislation to restrict free association. Similarly, he explains how criminal laws in Vietnam and El Salvador often deter individuals from exercising their rights to free association, as their voices may be met with harsh penalties from their governments.

Witnessed through Kiai’s reporting, the restrictions to free association are plentiful. This ultimately demonstrates that despite its entitlement by numerous United Nations treaties, the right to free association is highly vulnerable to violation and not widely internationally upheld.