Why Associations Matter

The Case for First Amendment Pluralism

Luke C. Sheahan

First Amendment rights are hailed as the hallmark of the US constitutional system, protecting religious liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of association. But among these rights, freedom of association holds a tenuous position, as demonstrated in the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which upheld a public university’s policy requiring groups seeking official recognition to accept all students regardless of their status or beliefs. This demotion of freedom of association has broad ramifications for the constitutional status of voluntary associations in civil society, Luke C. Sheahan suggests. His book offers a cogent explanation of how this came about, why it matters, and what might be done about it.

Sheahan’s argument centers upon what he calls the “First Amendment Dichotomy” in the Court’s theoretical framework: an understanding of the state and the individual as the two analytically exclusive units of constitutional analysis. Why Associations Matter traces this dichotomy through Supreme Court jurisprudence culminating in Martinez, revealing a pattern of free association treated only as an individual right of expressive association derived from the Speech Clause alone. Sheahan then draws on the political sociology of Robert Nisbet to make a case for recognizing the social importance of associations and institutions that cannot be reduced to their individual members or subsumed into the state for purposes of constitutional analysis.

“In light of the current debate across the whole of US society over when individuals, groups, and corporations can discriminate based on religious beliefs, this is certainly a timely work.


“[This book] could hardly be more timely and needed. In this short and easy-to-follow, yet thorough, work, Sheahan guides the reader through not only a crash course in why the right of free association is necessary for human life and liberty but also through the current state of First Amendment jurisprudence on the subject and a potential legal theory under which the right to association could be operationalized in the course.

—Mises Institute
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Translating the sociological qualities of associations into jurisprudential categories, Why Associations Matter provides practical advice for protecting freedom of association through the judiciary and the legislature—and guaranteeing this fundamental right its proper place in American society.

About the Author

Luke C. Sheahan is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Duquesne University and a non-resident scholar in the Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society (PRRUCS) at the University of Pennsylvania.