The Civil Rights Act and Freedom of Association

Lost perhaps in the uproar over Kentucky Republican senatorial candidate Rand Paul’s views on the 1964 Civil Rights Act (CRA) is a little-discussed freedom: the freedom of association.

Paul has recently come under fire for his philosophical position that the government should not be able to force private business owners to serve as customers individuals it choses not to. Though the 1964 CRA largely, and rightly, prevents government discrimination based on race, the controversy comes because part of the Act was passed in order to prevent racist business owners, particularly in the South, from denying service to blacks. Paul has been maligned as severely out-of-touch with reality, and, in some instances, it has been insinuated that he is catering to racists.

Many of the arguments of those supporting Paul’s position have revolved around property rights, the fact that Jim Crow was actually government-imposed segregation and the idea that racist businesses in today’s environment would quickly be forced to integrate or go out of business from public pressure and lack of customers. However, one less discussed argument might come from the generally accepted right to freedom of association.

The idea that individuals have a right to freely associate or chose not to associate with other individuals for whatever reason, good or bad, is referenced in both the U.S. Constitution and the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” and the U.N. Declaration notes in Art. 20: “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. No one may be compelled to belong to an association.”

An issue this poses that might be relevant to this now-renewed debate over the 1964 CRA is whether freedom of association means business owners can choose which individuals to associate or not associate with as customers. An interesting point noted in this video clip from members of the Young Americans for Liberty asks whether a black business owner should be required under the 1964 CRA to serve a member of the Ku Klux Klan. This twist in roles highlights the difficulty with government abridging the freedom of association under the Act.

Racism should, of course, be abhorred and boycotted. It represents a disgusting and ignorant collectivist mindset that is an affront to the individual.

But behind all the emotional overtones of racism and segregation, at the heart of this debate is a deeper philosophical and legal issue revolving around not only property rights and the role of government but also the right to freely associate. Rhetoric of racism and bigotry gets ratings. Despite this rhetoric in the media all-to-quick to insinuate veiled racism, the real concern should be the non-ratings-friendly principles underlying this debate.

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