National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Claiborne Hardware Company

PETITIONER: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
RESPONDENT: Claiborne Hardware Company
LOCATION: Mississippi Chancery Court

DOCKET NO.: 81-202
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Mississippi

CITATION: 458 US 886 (1982)
ARGUED: Mar 03, 1982
DECIDED: Jul 02, 1982

Grover Rees, III - on behalf of the Respondents
Lloyd N. Cutler - on behalf of the Petitioners

Facts of the case

In 1966, at a local meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) attended by several hundred people in Claiborne County, Mississippi, the group launched a boycott of white merchants. The purpose of the boycott was to promote equality and racial justice. The boycott consisted of nonviolent picketing, but some acts and threats of violence also occurred. In 1969, white merchants sued the NAACP for damages as a result of the injuries to their businesses that the boycott caused. These damages included loss of earnings over a seven-year period. The Chancery Court imposed damages liability and the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the imposition of tort liability as well as concluding the entire boycott was unlawful since the NAACP agreed to use force, violence, and “threats” to carryout the boycott.


Are the nonviolent elements of the petitioners’ activities entitled to the protection of the First Amendment?

(1) If so, is a protest liable in damages caused by the nonviolent, protected activity?

Media for National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Claiborne Hardware Company

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 03, 1982 in National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Claiborne Hardware Company

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments next in NAACP against Claiborne Hardware.

Mr. Cutler, I think you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Lloyd N. Cutler:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, the Petitioners in this case are the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and 91 black citizens of Mississippi.

They seek reversal of a Mississippi Supreme Court judgment against all Petitioners, jointly and severally, awarding money damages and an injunction because of a civil rights boycott against white merchants in Mississippi.

The Claiborne County boycott began in 1966.

At that time, discrimination against black citizens was still severe.

The black community, including the local chapter of the NAACP, petitioned to correct these conditions, and participated in a biracial committee appointed by the mayor of Port Gibson, the county seat.

When the committee failed to satisfy these grievances, the boycott was started.

Its purposes were to end racial discrimination in employment by the merchants and the local governments, and to desegregate the school system and other public facilities.

In our view, this case raises two constitutional questions.

One is whether a boycott of business enterprises in support of a petition for redress of civil rights grievances conducted by non-violent means, such as speeches, marches, distributing leaflets, picketing, and social ostracism, can constitutionally expose all participants to liability for a common law conspiracy and a damage judgment for all business losses caused by the boycott merely because some episodes of violence by some participants were found to be present during its course.

The second is whether, even assuming the constitutionality of such a damage award, all the active participants may be perpetually enjoined from peaceful activities in further pursuit of the boycott.

Do you mean by that, Mr. Cutler, that any damage factor particularly should be focused on the particular individuals identified as connected with violence?

Lloyd N. Cutler:

On particular individuals, Mr. Chief Justice, and on the particular portion of the business losses resulting from those acts of violence.

Yes, sir.

In other words, you are saying the particular acts, when and if identified--

Lloyd N. Cutler:

Yes, sir.

--must be shown to have had this consequence on the business losses.

Lloyd N. Cutler:

That is correct, Mr. Chief Justice.

We believe the Respondents have sidestepped both of these issues.

They have virtually conceded the second issue, the injunction issue.

On that, Mr. Cutler, didn't the Supreme Court of Mississippi say that you had waived that point by failing to argue it?

Lloyd N. Cutler:

They said it was moot, Justice Rehnquist.

We did argue against the entire judgment below on... including the injunction, on First Amendment grounds.

When the Supreme Court of Mississippi said that the... we had admitted the injunction was moot, we filed a petition for rehearing saying we had not admitted that, that the injunction was still in effect, and that it was an unlawful injunction for overbreadth, and our petition for rehearing was denied, and the injunction remains in effect subject, of course, to the stay of the Fifth Circuit which will terminate when this Court has passed on this case.

So you contend you did argue the merits of the injunction in the supreme--

Lloyd N. Cutler:

We say we did, and we certainly argued it on the rehearing.

There would be no ambiguity about that.

We argued--

--Was there ambiguity the first time?