Laird v. Tatum

408 U.S. 1 (1972)

(Ripeness and Surveillance)



After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, riots and civil unrest broke out in many cities throughout the United States. The civil unrest grew so intense in Detroit, Michigan that President Lyndon Johnson used the authority granted to him by federal statute 10 U.S.C. § 331 to call in federal troops to help dissipate the protestors and rioters. Afterwards, officials in the army began to question whether they were properly equipped to deal with such situations again, so they started to collect data from civilians in the hopes of being more prepared for future civil unrest. The data collecting program gathered information from news media and other public materials to gather information about activities that might lead to civil unrest. In 1972, the Washington Monthly published an article revealing that the United States military was surveilling and gathering information on individuals and organizations within the United States. After reading the article, Arlo Tatum, the executive secretary for the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, and other plaintiffs sued Melvin Laird, the Secretary of Defense under Richard Nixon. Tatum and the other plaintiffs argued that the surveillance program “chilled” the First Amendment rights of American citizens and civil groups and threatened their rights under the First Amendment to express dissenting political views and engage in lawful civil activities. The Court dismissed the case as not justiciable because the existence of the information-gathering program did not constitute a definite harm or threat of harm in the present or in the future, but rather was based on the potential harm that collecting information on civilians could cause.

Laird v. Tatum


There is in the record a considerable amount of background information regarding the activities of which respondents complained; this information is set out primarily in the affidavits that were filed by the parties in connection with the District Court's consideration of respondents' motion for a preliminary injunction and petitioners' motion to dismiss. A brief review of that information is helpful to an understanding of the issues.

The President is authorized by to make use of the armed forces to quell insurrection and other domestic violence if and when the conditions described in that section obtain within one of the States. Pursuant to those provisions, President Johnson ordered federal troops to assist local authorities at the time of the civil disorders in Detroit, Michigan, in the summer of 1967 and during the disturbances that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Prior to the Detroit disorders, the Army had a general contingency plan for providing such assistance to local authorities, but the 1967 experience led Army authorities to believe that more attention should be given to such preparatory planning. The data-gathering system here involved is said to have been established in connection with the development of more detailed and specific contingency planning designed to permit the Army, when called upon to assist local authorities, to be able to respond effectively with a minimum of force. As the Court of Appeals observed,

"In performing this type function the Army is essentially a police force or the back-up of a local police force. To quell disturbances or to prevent further disturbances the Army needs the same tools and, most importantly, the same information to which local police forces have access. Since the Army is sent into territory almost invariably unfamiliar to most soldiers and their commanders, their need for information is likely to be greater than that of the hometown policeman.

"No logical argument can be made for compelling the military to use blind force. When force is employed it should be intelligently directed, and this depends upon having reliable information -- in time. As Chief Justice John Marshall said of Washington, 'A general must be governed by his intelligence and must regulate his measures by his information. It is his duty to obtain correct information . . ..' So we take it as undeniable that the military, i. e., the Army, need a certain amount of information in order to perform their constitutional and statutory missions." 

The system put into operation as a result of the Army's 1967 experience consisted essentially of the collection of information about public activities that were thought to have at least some potential for civil disorder, the reporting of that information to Army Intelligence headquarters at Fort Holabird, Maryland, the dissemination of these reports from headquarters to major Army posts around the country, and the storage of the reported information in a computer data bank located at Fort Holabird. The information itself was collected by a variety of means, but it is significant that the principal sources of information were the news media and publications in general circulation. Some of the information came from Army Intelligence agents who attended meetings that were open to the public and who wrote field reports describing the meetings, giving such data as the name of the sponsoring organization, the identity of speakers, the approximate number of persons in attendance, and an indication of whether any disorder occurred. And still other information was provided to the Army by civilian law enforcement agencies.

The material filed by the Government in the District Court reveals that Army Intelligence has field offices in various parts of the country; these offices are staffed in the aggregate with approximately 1,000 agents, 94% of whose time is devoted to the organization's principal mission, which is unrelated to the domestic surveillance system here involved.

By early 1970 Congress became concerned with the scope of the Army's domestic surveillance system; hearings on the matter were held before the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Meanwhile, the Army, in the course of a review of the system, ordered a significant reduction in its scope. For example, information referred to in the complaint as the "blacklist" and the records in the computer data bank at Fort Holabird were found unnecessary and were destroyed, along with other related records. One copy of all the material relevant to the instant suit was retained, however, because of the pendency of this litigation. The review leading to the destruction of these records was said at the time the District Court ruled on petitioners' motion to dismiss to be a "continuing" one, and the Army's policies at that time were represented as follows in a letter from the Under Secretary of the Army to Senator Sam J. Ervin, Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights:

"Reports concerning civil disturbances will be limited to matters of immediate concern to the Army -- that is, reports concerning outbreaks of violence or incidents with a high potential for violence beyond the capability of state and local police and the National Guard to control. These reports will be collected by liaison with other Government agencies and reported by teletype to the Intelligence Command. They will not be placed in a computer . . .. These reports are destroyed 60 days after publication or 60 days after the end of the disturbance. This limited reporting system will ensure that the Army is prepared to respond to whatever directions the President may issue in civil disturbance situations and without 'watching' the lawful activities of civilians."

In briefs for petitioners filed with this Court, the Solicitor General has called our attention to certain directives issued by the Army and the Department of Defense subsequent to the District Court's dismissal of the action; these directives indicate that the Army's review of the needs of its domestic intelligence activities has indeed been a continuing one and that those activities have since been significantly reduced.


The District Court held a combined hearing on respondents' motion for a preliminary injunction and petitioners' motion for dismissal and thereafter announced its holding that respondents had failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. It was the view of the District Court that respondents failed to allege any action on the part of the Army that was unlawful in itself and further failed to allege any injury or any realistic threats to their rights growing out of the Army's actions.

In reversing, the Court of Appeals noted that respondents "have some difficulty in establishing visible injury":

"[They] freely admit that they complain of no specific action of the Army against them . . .. There is no evidence of illegal or unlawful surveillance activities. We are not cited to any clandestine intrusion by a military agent. So far as is yet shown, the information gathered is nothing more than a good newspaper reporter would be able to gather by attendance at public meetings and the clipping of articles from publications available on any newsstand." 

The court took note of petitioners' argument "that nothing [detrimental to respondents] has been done, that nothing is contemplated to be done, and even if some action by the Army against [respondents] were possibly foreseeable, such would not present a presently justiciable controversy." With respect to this argument, the Court of Appeals had this to say:

"This position of the [petitioners] does not accord full measure to the rather unique argument advanced by appellants [respondents]. While [respondents] do indeed argue that in the future it is possible that information relating to matters far beyond the responsibilities of the military may be misused by the military to the detriment of these civilian [respondents], yet [respondents] do not attempt to establish this as a definitely foreseeable event, or to base their complaint on this ground. Rather, [respondents] contend that the present existence of this system of gathering and distributing information, allegedly far beyond the mission requirements of the Army, constitutes an impermissible burden on [respondents] and other persons similarly situated which exercises a present inhibiting effect on their full expression and utilization of their First Amendment rights . . .." 


Does an alleged domestic surveillance program by the Department of the Army present a justiciable claim for relief?


We granted certiorari to consider whether, as the Court of Appeals held, respondents presented a justiciable controversy in complaining of a "chilling" effect on the exercise of their First Amendment rights where such effect is allegedly caused, not by any "specific action of the Army against them, [but] only [by] the existence and operation of the intelligence gathering and distributing system, which is confined to the Army and related civilian investigative agencies."  We reverse.


Our examination of the record satisfies us that the Court of Appeals properly identified the issue presented, namely, whether the jurisdiction of a federal court may be invoked by a complainant who alleges that the exercise of his First Amendment rights is being chilled by the mere existence, without more, of a governmental investigative and data-gathering activity that is alleged to be broader in scope than is reasonably necessary for the accomplishment of a valid governmental purpose.

In recent years this Court has found in a number of cases that constitutional violations may arise from the deterrent, or "chilling," effect of governmental regulations that fall short of a direct prohibition against the exercise of First Amendment rights. In none of these cases, however, did the chilling effect arise merely from the individual's knowledge that a governmental agency was engaged in certain activities or from the individual's concomitant fear that, armed with the fruits of those activities, the agency might in the future take some other and additional action detrimental to that individual.

For example, the petitioner in Baird v. State Bar of Arizona had been denied admission to the bar solely because of her refusal to answer a question regarding the organizations with which she had been associated in the past. In announcing the judgment of the Court, Mr. Justice Black said that "a State may not inquire about a man's views or associations solely for the purpose of withholding a right or benefit because of what he believes." Baggett v. Bullitt dealt with a requirement that an oath of vague and uncertain meaning be taken as a condition of employment by a governmental agency. The Court said: "Those with a conscientious regard for what they solemnly swear or affirm, sensitive to the perils posed by the oath's indefinite language, avoid the risk of loss of employment, and perhaps profession, only by restricting their conduct to that which is unquestionably safe. Free speech may not be so inhibited." 

The decisions in these cases fully recognize that governmental action may be subject to constitutional challenge even though it has only an indirect effect on the exercise of First Amendment rights. At the same time, however, these decisions have in no way eroded the "established principle that  to entitle a private individual to invoke the judicial power to determine the validity of executive or legislative action he must show that he has sustained or is immediately in danger of sustaining a direct injury as the result of that action . . . ."

The respondents do not meet this test; their claim, simply stated, is that they disagree with the judgments made by the Executive Branch with respect to the type and amount of information the Army needs and that the very existence of the Army's data-gathering system produces a constitutionally impermissible chilling effect upon the exercise of their First Amendment rights. Allegations of a subjective " chill" are not an adequate substitute for a claim of specific present objective harm or a threat of specific future harm; "the federal courts established pursuant to Article III of the Constitution do not render advisory opinions." 

 Stripped to its essentials, what respondents appear to be seeking is a broad-scale investigation, conducted by themselves as private parties armed with the subpoena power of a federal district court and the power of cross-examination, to probe into the Army's intelligence gathering activities, with the district court determining at the conclusion of that investigation the extent to which those activities may or may not be appropriate to the Army's mission.

Carried to its logical end, this approach would have the federal courts as virtually continuing monitors of the wisdom and soundness of Executive action; such a role is appropriate for the Congress acting through its committees and the "power of the purse"; it is not the role of the judiciary, absent actual present or immediately threatened injury resulting from unlawful governmental action.

When presented with claims of judicially cognizable injury resulting from military intrusion into the civilian sector, federal courts are fully empowered to consider claims of those asserting such injury; there is nothing in our Nation's history or in this Court's decided cases, including our holding today, that can properly be seen as giving any indication that actual or threatened injury by reason of unlawful activities of the military would go unnoticed or unremedied.


Respondents' claim that their First Amendment rights are chilled, due to the mere existence of this data-gathering system, does not constitute a justiciable controversy on the basis of the record in this case, disclosing as it does no showing of objective harm or threat of specific future harm.


Key Takeaway

The claim that First Amendment rights are chilled due to the mere existence of a data-gathering system doesn't constitute a justiciable controversy. 

The record doesn't show objective harm or threat of specific future harm.

Court Syllabus

Prior to its being called upon in 1967 to assist local authorities in quelling civil disorders in Detroit, Michigan, the Department of the Army had developed only a general contingency plan in connection with its limited domestic mission under 10 U. S. C. § 331. In response to the Army's experience in the various civil disorders it was called upon to help control during 1967 and 1968, Army Intelligence established a data-gathering system, which respondents describe as involving the "surveillance of lawful civilian political activity." 

Held: Respondents' claim that their First Amendment rights are chilled, due to the mere existence of this data-gathering system, does not constitute a justiciable controversy on the basis of the record in this case, disclosing as it does no showing of objective harm or threat of specific future harm.

How the Justices Voted

Majority: Burger, joined by White, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist

Dissent: Douglas, joined by Marshall

Dissent: Brennan, joined by Stewart, Marshall