Laird v. Tatum, 408 U.S. 1 (1972)

Author: Justice Burger

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Laird v. Tatum, 408 U.S. 1 (1972)

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

Respondents brought this class action in the District Court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief on their claim that their rights were being invaded by the Department of the Army’s alleged "surveillance of lawful and peaceful civilian political activity." The petitioners in response described the activity as

gathering by lawful means . . . [and] maintaining and using in their intelligence activities . . . information relating to potential or actual civil disturbances [or] street demonstrations.

In connection with respondents’ motion for a preliminary injunction and petitioners’ motion to dismiss the complaint, both parties filed a number of affidavits with the District Court and presented their oral arguments at a hearing on the two motions. On the basis of the pleadings,{1} the affidavits before the court, and the oral arguments advanced at the hearing, the District Court granted petitioners’ motion to dismiss, holding that there was no justiciable claim for relief.

On appeal, a divided Court of Appeals reversed, and ordered the case remanded for further proceedings. 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.

144 U.S.App.D.C. 72, 78, 444 F.2d 947, 953. We reverse.


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. See Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 12(b). A brief review of that information is helpful to an understanding of the issues.

The President is authorized by 10 U.S.C. § 331{2} 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.

144 U.S.App.D.C. at 77-78, 444 F.2d at 952-953 (footnotes omitted).

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{3} is devoted to the organization’s principal mission,{4} 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 (App. 82), 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:

[R]eports 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.

(App. 80.)

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.{5}

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.

144 U.S.App.D.C. at 78, 444 F.2d at 953. 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. . . .

Id. at 79, 444 F.2d at 954. (Emphasis in original.)

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. We conclude, however, that, having properly identified the issue, the Court of Appeals decided that issue incorrectly.{6}

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. E.g., Baird v. State Bar of Arizona, 401 U.S. 1 (1971); Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 (1967); Lamont v. Postmaster General, 381 U.S. 301 (1965); Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360 (1964). 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. Rather, in each of these cases, the challenged exercise of governmental power was regulatory, proscriptive, or compulsory in nature, and the complainant was either presently or prospectively subject to the regulations, proscriptions, or compulsions that he was challenging. 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.

401 U.S. at 7. Some of the teachers who were the complainants in Keyishian v. Board of Regents had been discharged from employment by the State, and the others were threatened with such discharge, because of their political acts or associations. The Court concluded that the State’s "complicated and intricate scheme" of laws and regulations relating to teacher loyalty could not withstand constitutional scrutiny; it was not permissible to inhibit First Amendment expression by forcing a teacher to "guess what conduct or utterance" might be in violation of that complex regulatory scheme, and might thereby "lose him his position." 385 U.S. at 604. Lamont v. Postmaster General dealt with a governmental regulation requiring private individuals to make a special written request to the Post Office for delivery of each individual mailing of certain kinds of political literature addressed to them. In declaring the regulation invalid, the Court said: "The addressee carries an affirmative obligation which we do not think the Government may impose on him." 381 U.S. at 307. 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.

377 U.S. at 372.

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. . . .

Ex parte Levitt, 302 U.S. 633, 634 (1937). 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. That alleged "chilling" effect may perhaps be seen as arising from respondents’ very perception of the system as inappropriate to the Army’s role under our form of government, or as arising from respondents’ beliefs that it is inherently dangerous for the military to be concerned with activities in the civilian sector, or as arising from respondents’ less generalized yet speculative apprehensiveness that the Army may at some future date misuse the information in some way that would cause direct harm to respondents.{7} 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." United Public Workers v. Mitchell, 330 U.S. 75, 89 (1947).

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. The following excerpt from the opinion of the Court of Appeals suggests the broad sweep implicit in its holding:

Apparently, in the judgment of the civilian head of the Army, not everything being done in the operation of this intelligence system was necessary to the performance of the military mission. If the Secretary of the Army can formulate and implement such judgment based on facts within his Departmentalknowledge, the United States District Court can hear evidence, ascertain the facts, and decide what, if any, further restrictions on the complained-of activities are called for to confine the military to their legitimate sphere of activity and to protect [respondents’] allegedly infringed constitutional rights.

144 U.S.App.D.C. at 83, 444 F.2d at 958. (Emphasis added.)

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.

We, of course, intimate no view with respect to the propriety or desirability, from a policy standpoint, of the challenged activities of the Department of the Army; our conclusion is a narrow one, namely, that, on this record, the respondents have not presented a case for resolution by the courts.

The concerns of the Executive and Legislative Branches in response to disclosure of the Army surveillance activities -- and indeed the claims alleged in the complaint -- reflect a traditional and strong resistance of Americans to any military intrusion into civilian affairs. That tradition has deep roots in our history, and found early expression, for example, in the Third Amendment’s explicit prohibition against quartering soldiers in private homes without consent, and in the constitutional provisions for civilian control of the military. Those prohibitions are not directly presented by this case, but their philosophical underpinnings explain our traditional insistence on limitations on military operations in peacetime. Indeed, 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.


1. The complaint filed in the District Court, candidly asserted that its factual allegations were based on a magazine article:

The information contained in the foregoing paragraphs numbered five through thirteen [of the complaint] was published in the January 1970 issue of the magazine The Washington Monthly. . . .


Whenever there is an insurrection in any State against its government, the President may, upon the request of its legislature or of its governor if the legislature cannot be convened, call into Federal service such of the militia of the other States, in the number requested by that State, and use such of the armed forces, as he considers necessary to suppress the insurrection.

The constitutionality of this statute is not at issue here; the specific authorization of such use of federal armed forces, in addition to state militia, appears to have been enacted pursuant to Art. IV, § 4, of the Constitution, which provides that

[t]he United States . . . shall protect each of [the individual States] . . . on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.

In describing the requirement of 10 U.S.C. § 331 for the use of federal troops to quell domestic disorders, Attorney General Ramsey Clark made the following statements in a letter sent to all state governors on August 7, 1967:

There are three basic prerequisites to the use of Federal troops in a state in the event of domestic violence:

(1) That a situation of serious "domestic violence" exists within t.he state. While this conclusion should be supported with a statement of factual details to the extent, feasible under the circumstances, there is no prescribed wording.

(2) That such violence cannot be brought under control by the law enforcement resources available to the governor, including local and State police forces and the National Guard. The judgment required here is that there is a definite need for the assistance of Federal troops, taking into account the remaining time needed to move them into action at the scene of violence.

(3) That the legislature or the governor requests the President to employ the armed forces to bring the violence under control. The element of request by the governor of a State is essential if the legislature cannot be convened. It may be difficult in the context of urban rioting, such as we have seen this summer, to convene the legislature.

These three elements should be expressed in a written communication to the President, which of course may be a telegram, to support his issuance of a proclamation under 10 U.S.C. § 334 and commitment of troops to action. In case of extreme emergency, receipt of a written request will not be a prerequisite to Presidential action. However, since it takes several hours to alert and move Federal troops, the few minutes needed to write and dispatch a telegram are not likely to cause any delay.

Upon receiving the request from a governor, the President, under the terms of the statute and the historic practice, must exercise his own judgment as to whether Federal troops will be sent, and as to such questions as timing, size of the force, and federalization of the National Guard.

Preliminary steps, such as alerting the troops, can be taken by the Federal government upon oral communications and prior to the governor’s determination that the violence cannot be brought under control without the aid of Federal forces. Even such preliminary steps, however, represent a most serious departure from our traditions of local responsibility for law enforcement. They should not be requested until there is a substantial likelihood that the Federal forces will be needed.

This analysis of Attorney General Clark suggests the importance of the need for information to guide the intelligent use of military forces and to avoid "overkill."

3. Translated in terms of personnel, this percentage figure suggests that the total intelligence operation concerned with potential civil disorders hardly merits description as "massive," as one of the dissents characterizes it.

4. That principal mission was described in one of the documents filed with the District Court as the conducting of

investigations to determine whether uniformed members of the Army, civilian employees [of the Army] and contractors’ employees should be granted access to classified information.

App. 76-77.

5. In the course of the oral argument, the District Judge sought clarification from respondents’ counsel as to the nature of the threats perceived by respondents; he asked what exactly it was in the Army’s activities that tended to chill respondents and others in the exercise of their constitutional rights. Counsel responded that it was

precisely the threat in this case that, in some future civil disorder of some kind, the Army is going to come in with its list of troublemakers . . . and go rounding up people and putting them in military prisons somewhere.

(Emphasis added.) To this the court responded that "we still sit here with the writ of habeas corpus." At another point, counsel for respondents took a somewhat different approach in arguing that "we’re not quite sure exactly what they have in mind, and that is precisely what causes the chill, the chilling effect." (Emphasis added .)

6. Indeed, the Court of Appeals noted that it had reached a different conclusion when presented with a virtually identical issue in another of its recently decided cases, Davis v. Ichord, 143 U.S.App.D.C. 183, 442 F.2d 1207 (1970). The plaintiffs in Davis were attacking the constitutionality of the House of Representatives Rule under which the House Committee on Internal Security conducts investigations and maintains files described by the plaintiffs as a "political blacklist." The court noted that any chilling effect to which the plaintiffs were subject arose from the mere existence of the Committee and its files and the mere possibility of the misuse of those files. In affirming the dismissal of the complaint, the court concluded that allegations of such a chilling effect could not be elevated to a justiciable claim merely by alleging as well that the challenged House Rule was overly broad and vague.

In deciding the case presently under review, the Court of Appeals distinguished Davis on the ground that the difference in the source of the chill in the two cases -- a House Committee in Davis and the Army in the instant case -- was controlling. We cannot agree that the jurisdictional question with which we are here concerned is to be resolved on the basis of the identity of the parties named as defendants in the complaint.

7. Not only have respondents left somewhat unclear the precise connection between the mere existence of the challenged system and their own alleged chill, but they have also cast considerable doubt on whether they themselves are in fact suffering from any such chill. Judge MacKinnon took cogent note of this difficulty in dissenting from the Court of Appeals’ judgment, rendered as it was "on the facts of the case which emerge from the pleadings, affidavits and the admissions made to the trial court." 144 U.S.App.D.C. at 84, 444 F.2d at 959. At the oral argument before the District Court, counsel for respondents admitted that his clients were "not people, obviously, who are cowed and chilled"; indeed, they were quite willing "to open themselves up to public investigation and public scrutiny." But, counsel argued, these respondents must "represent millions of Americans not nearly as forward [and] courageous" as themselves. It was Judge MacKinnon’s view that this concession "constitutes a basic denial of practically their whole case." Ibid. Even assuming a justiciable controversy, if respondents themselves are not chilled, but seek only to represent those "millions" whom they believe are so chilled, respondents clearly lack that "personal stake in the outcome of the controversy" essential to standing. Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 204 (1962). As the Court recently observed in Moose Lodge No. 107 v. Irvis, 407 U.S. 163, 166, a litigant "has standing to seek redress for injuries done to him, but may not seek redress for injuries done to others."


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Chicago: Burger, "Burger, J., Lead Opinion," Laird v. Tatum, 408 U.S. 1 (1972) in 408 U.S. 1 408 U.S. 3–408 U.S. 16. Original Sources, accessed August 17, 2022,

MLA: Burger. "Burger, J., Lead Opinion." Laird v. Tatum, 408 U.S. 1 (1972), in 408 U.S. 1, pp. 408 U.S. 3–408 U.S. 16. Original Sources. 17 Aug. 2022.

Harvard: Burger, 'Burger, J., Lead Opinion' in Laird v. Tatum, 408 U.S. 1 (1972). cited in 1972, 408 U.S. 1, pp.408 U.S. 3–408 U.S. 16. Original Sources, retrieved 17 August 2022, from