Shelton v. Tucker

Shelton v. Tucker was a 1960 U.S. Supreme Court case that thwarted Governor Orval Faubus and his allies’ effort to all but end the operations of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the state. In ruling that the recently enacted Act 10 of 1958 violated the freedom of association protected by the First Amendment, the Court rebuffed the state’s efforts, allowing the organization to continue its work.

The statute at issue, Act 10 of 1958, was one of a number passed by the Arkansas General Assembly in the midst of the Central High School desegregation crisis. The law sought not to target the NAACP’s leadership but rather those whom Governor Orval Faubus and the legislature saw as a core of the membership, the teachers who in fact had been little more than innocent bystanders in the legal tug of war that had Brown v. Board of Education as its centerpiece. But while the goal was clearly to impact the efforts of the NAACP, it was done in the guise of protecting the impressionable minds of the state’s students from supposed subversive and insidious influences.

Taking a page from the guilt-by-association approach that had marked the anti-communist “Red Scare” loyalty oaths of the 1940s and 1950s, the Arkansas elite, following on the heels of their Alabama counterparts, had enacted two statutes as part of the 1958–1959 legislative package: Act 10 of 1958, which required public school teachers to submit affidavits disclosing every organization to which they belonged or made donations during the previous five years, and Act 115 of 1959, which prohibited NAACP members from holding any state job, including teaching. In a state where teachers had neither tenure nor civil service protection but were instead hired on year-to-year contracts, these were laws that could have draconian consequences for those involved with the NAACP.

Consequently, it was no small thing when longtime Little Rock (Pulaski County) teacher Booker T. Shelton challenged the law’s constitutionality in a suit filed in federal court in which Everett Tucker Jr., the president of the Little Rock school board, was named as the defendant. In doing so, he put his job, and perhaps his life, in jeopardy. But Shelton did not flinch. The veteran teacher had spent a quarter century toiling in the underfunded, separate but definitely not equal, Little Rock schools. Early in his teaching career, in 1940, he had been a party to a previous lawsuit seeking equal pay for all teachers.

Shelton’s suit, one eventually joined by a sufficient number to recast it as a class action, contended that the law deprived him of life, liberty, and property without due process. He also argued that the teachers were denied equal protection of the law, and that the statute infringed upon their rights of freedom of speech, assembly, and association. Finally, the suit also argued that Shelton was threatened with irreparable harm.

The federal trial began on May 29, 1959, before a three-judge panel that included Judges John B. Sanborn, John E. Miller, and J. Smith Henley. The panel quickly struck down the companion law, Act 115 of 1959, which prohibited NAACP members from holding state jobs, declaring, “Since the fact of association alone cannot be used to determine loyalty or disqualification, it is obvious that mere membership in the NAACP cannot be made a bar to public employment.” But at the same time, the judges upheld the state’s right to inquire about a teacher’s associations, notwithstanding public pronouncements which had made clear that the law, in practice, had virtually nothing to do with assessing a teacher’s fitness and everything to do with threatening, if not punishing, those supporting the organization.

The NAACP immediately appealed the ruling, and on November 7, 1960, the Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, heard the case, combining it with a parallel suit filed by attorney Edwin Eagle Dunaway brought in state court on behalf of Max Carr, an associate professor at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), and Ernest T. Gephardt, a high school teacher. Their suit, which reached the High Court as Carr v. Young, named the university president and board of trustees, and the Little Rock School superintendent and the school board, as defendants.

While the Court was split in its ruling, it did not take the justices long to arrive at their decision. On December 12, 1960, by a 5–4 vote, the Court concluded that “Act 10 deprives teachers in Arkansas of their rights to personal, associational, and academic liberty, protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment from invasion by state action.” Writing for the majority, Justice Potter Stewart fully acknowledged “the right of a State to investigate the competence and fitness of those whom it hires to teach in its schools.” The Court recognized not only that “a teacher works in a sensitive area in a school room [where]…he shapes the attitude of young minds towards the society in which they live,” but also that the Constitution did not make a “teacher’s classroom conduct…the sole basis for determining his fitness,” adding, “Fitness for teaching depends on a broad range of factors.”

But at the same time, the majority determined that “to compel a teacher to disclose his every associational tie is to impair his right of free association, a right closely allied to freedom of speech and a right which, like free speech, lies at the foundation of a free society.” The Court added, “The unlimited and indiscriminate sweep of the statute here involved and its comprehensive interference with associational freedom go far beyond what might be justified in the exercise of the State’s legitimate inquiry into the fitness and competence of its teachers.”

Recognizing the critical impact of year-to-year, non-tenured employment in the Arkansas public schools, Stewart added, “Such interference with personal freedom is conspicuously accented when the teacher serves at the absolute will of those to whom the disclosure must be made.” He concluded by asserting, “The statute’s comprehensive interference with associational freedom goes far beyond what might be justified in the exercise of the State’s legitimate inquiry into the fitness and competency of its teachers.”

It was a major victory for the state’s educators and the NAACP, whose membership ranks had already thinned under the threat of the law’s full implementation.

For additional information:
Purdy, Elizabeth R. “Shelton v. Tucker (1960).” First Amendment Encyclopedia. https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/71/shelton-v-tucker (accessed January 13, 2022).

Shelton v. Tucker, 364 U.S. 479 (1960). https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/364/479/ (accessed January 13, 2022).

William H. Pruden III
Ravenscroft School

Last Updated: 01/13/2022