1963 March 25

Supreme Court Limits Legislative Investigations of Political Beliefs and Associations


In the case of Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigating Committee, the Supreme Court on this day imposed significant limits on the power of legislative investigating committees to inquire into political beliefs and associations. This history of the Florida committee involved both racism and homophobia. In 1956 it began investigating faculty and staff at Florida A&M University who had been involved in the Tallahassee Bus Boycott, challenging its segregation policy. In 1958 it also began to investigate homosexuals who might be employed by state agencies — and by state universities in particular. By 1963 the committee claimed to have caused the firing of 39 faculty members. There were also a number of resignations and one attempted suicide by a faculty member after he was interrogated by the committee.

The plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, Theodore R. Gibson, was president of the Miami chapter of the NAACP, who was convicted of contempt for refusing to turn over the organization’s membership list. The committee had alleged that some members were Communists. In the end, the case brought together the three issues of civil rights, anti-communism, and lesbian and gay rights.

In its decision, the Court ruled that “When, as in this case, the claim is made that a legislative investigation intrudes upon First and Fourteenth Amendment associational rights of individuals, the State must show convincingly a substantial relation between the information sought and a subject of overriding and compelling state interest.”

Additionally, it held that “groups which themselves are neither engaged in subversive or other illegal or improper activities nor demonstrated to have any substantial connections with such activities must be protected in their rights of free and private association guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

The Supreme Court had previously placed some limits on the scope of legislative investigations into political beliefs and associations on “Red Monday,” June 17, 1957. And on June 30, 1958, in NAACP v. Alabama the Court ruled that the NAACP in Alabama did not have to disclose it membership list, and with the decision created a constitutional freedom of association under the First Amendment.

Learn more about the homophobic attacks on Florida teachers: Karen L. Graves, And They Were Wonderful Teachers: Florida’s Purge of Gay and Lesbian Teachers (2009)

Learn more: Stacy Braukman, Communists and Perverts Under the Palms: The Johns Committee in Florida, 1956-1965 (2012) 

Learn about the contributions of the civil rights movement to civil liberties: Harry Kalven, The Negro and the First Amendment (1965)


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