The right to join with other people to promote a particular outlook, known as the right of expressive association, is a necessary adjunct to the right of freedom of speech, which is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, the United States Supreme Court found that the Boy Scouts of America had a First Amendment expressive association right to exclude a homosexual adult volunteer. Dale is likely to prove to be one of the most important First Amendment cases of recent years, because the Court enforced a broad right of expressive association against the competing claims of an antidiscrimination law.
The right to expressive association had languished in obscurity for more than two decades after the Supreme Court articulated it in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the course of protecting civil rights activists from racist Southern governments. Controversy over constitutional protection of expressive association arose in the 1980s, when private associations claimed that it protected their right to discriminate when necessary to pursue the associations' goals. The Supreme Court seemed aghast that the expressive association right was being used as a tool of those who would seek to use its protection of their associative status in order to discriminate. In a series of opinions in the mid to late 1980s, the Court both narrowly defined the circumstances in which expressive association rights are impinged, and suggested that antidiscrimination laws are always "compelling government interests" sufficient to override these rights. The right of expressive association had been significantly weakened.
Dale, however, dramatically revived the right of expressive association. The Court found that the Boy Scouts had an expressive association right to exclude gay scoutmasters even though the Scouts' anti-homosexual activity policy was neither well-publicized nor especially central to its mission. Moreover, the Court rejected New Jersey's claim that the law was justified by the state's compelling interest in eradicating discrimination against homosexuals.
The essay examines the right of expressive association and the consequences of its reinvigoration by the Supreme Court in Dale. Part I recounts the ups and downs of the right from its inception in civil rights cases, to its low ebb in the 1980s, to its reinvigoration in Dale. Part II discusses some of the scholarly commentary on Dale and concludes that the right to expressive association after Dale will continue to be a broad one, with some limitations. Part III discusses some of the post-Dale decisions that support the interpretation of Dale as expounding a broad-based expressive association right fully applicable to a variety of situations. Finally, Part IV looks at some of the untapped potential uses of the right. In particular, Dale will often shield religious associations from intrusive antidiscrimination laws.
Date of this Version
David E. Bernstein, "Expressive Association after Dale" (August 2005). George Mason University School of Law Working Papers Series. Working Paper 33.