National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) v. Claiborne Hardware Co.
Decided on July 2, 1982; 458 US 886

White merchants claim they are entitled to damages from an NAACP boycott


A. Issues Discussed: First Amendment (press, speech, association)

B. Legal Question Presented:

Can the NAACP, Mississippi Action for Progress, and others be held liable for damages resulting from a boycott of white merchants?


A. Background:

In 1966, several hundred black citizens attended a meeting of a local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and voted to launch a boycott against white merchants in Claiborne County, Mississippi. The purpose of the boycott was to secure compliance by both civic and business leaders, with a lengthy list of demands for equality and racial justice, after their initial complaints did not receive a satisfactory response. The boycott was largely supported by speeches encouraging others to join in its cause and by nonviolent picketing; however, some acts and threats of violence did occur.

Respondents (17 white merchants) filed suit in Mississippi Chancery Court for injunctive relief and damages against petitioners, NAACP, Mississippi Action for Progress, and a number of individuals who had participated in the boycott including Charles Evers, Field Secretary of the NAACP and the boycott's principal organizer.

The Chancery Court heard the testimony of 144 witnesses during an 8-month trial. In the end, the court imposed damages liability and issued a permanent injunction, holding petitioners jointly and severally liable for all of respondents' lost earnings from 1966 to the end of 1972, on three separate conspiracy theories including the tort of malicious interference with respondents' businesses. Petitioners appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which rejected two theories of liability but upheld the imposition of liability on the basis of the tort theory. The court held that the entire boycott was unlawful and affirmed petitioners' liability for all damages "resulting from the boycott" on the ground that petitioners had agreed to use force, violence, and "threats" to effectuate the boycott.

Petitioners, NAACP and others, appealed to the US Supreme Court and their petition for certiorari was granted.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Lloyd N. Cutler argued the cause for petitioners.

With him on the briefs were James Robertson, Edward Tynes Hand, William R. Richardson, Jr., John Payton, Thomas I. Atkins, Charles E. Carter, William L. Robinson and Frank R. Parker.
Grover Rees III argued the cause for respondents.

With him on the briefs were Crane D. Kipp, Christopher J. Walker, and Dixon L. Pyles.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
John Vanderstar, Charles S. Sims, and Phyllis N. Segal filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union as amicus curiae, urging reversal.

Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed by J. Albert Woll, Laurence Gold and George Kaufmann for the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations; and by Paul S. Berger, David Bonderman, Leonard B. Simon, and Nathan Z. Dershowitz for the American Jewish Congress.
No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of respondent.

"At times the difference between lawful and unlawful collective action may be identified easily by reference to its purpose. In this case, however, petitioners' ultimate objectives were unquestionably legitimate. The charge of illegality - like the claim of constitutional protection - derives from the means employed by the participants to achieve those goals. The use of speeches, marches, and threats of social ostracism cannot provide the basis for a damages award.  But violent conduct is beyond the pale of constitutional protection.

The taint of violence colored the conduct of some of the petitioners. They, of course, may be held liable for the consequences of their violent deeds. The burden of demonstrating that it colored the entire collective effort, however, is not satisfied by evidence that violence occurred or even that violence contributed to the success of the boycott. A massive and prolonged effort to change the social, political, and economic structure of a local environment cannot be characterized as a violent conspiracy simply by reference to the ephemeral consequences of relatively few violent acts. Such a characterization must be supported by findings that adequately disclose the evidentiary basis for concluding that specific parties agreed to use unlawful means, that carefully identify the impact of such unlawful conduct, and that recognize the importance of avoiding the imposition of punishment for constitutionally protected activity. The burden of demonstrating that fear rather than protected conduct was the dominant force in the movement is heavy... [t]he findings of the chancellor, framed largely in the light of two legal theories rejected by the Mississippi Supreme Court, are constitutionally insufficient to support the judgment that all petitioners are liable for all losses resulting from the boycott... [r]eversed and remanded."
Justice Vote: 8 Pro vs. 0 Con

  • Stevens, J. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Pro  (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Powell, L. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • O'Connor, S. Pro (Joined majority opinion
  • Blackmun, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Did not participate in the decision making process of the case.

The ACLU filed as amicus curiae urging reversal, the US Supreme Court reversed the Mississippi Supreme Court judgment in a 8-0 vote giving the ACLU an apparent win.