Freedom of association is the individual right to come together with other individuals and collectively express, promote, pursue and defend common interests. The right to freedom of association has been included in a number of national constitutions and human rights instruments, including the US constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Freedom of association in the sense of workers' right to organize and collectively bargain is also recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Labor Organization Conventions.
The right to freedom of association is sometimes used interchangeably with the freedom of assembly. More specifically the freedom of assembly is understood in a political context, although depending on the source (constitution, human rights instrument etc) the right to freedom of association may be understood to include the right to freedom of assembly.
The freedom of association is however not only exercised in the political sense, but also for a vast array of interests - such as culture, recreation, sport and social and humanitarian assistance. Jeremey McBride agues that the formation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which he equates with civil society, is the "fruit of associational activity".
The libertarian concept of freedom of association is often rebuked from a moral/ethical context. Under laws in such a system, businessowners could refuse service to anyone for whatever reason. Opponents argue that such practices are regressive and would lead to greater prejudice within society. Right-libertarians sympathetic to freedom of association, such as Richard Epstein, respond that in a case of refusing service (which thus is a case of the freedom of contract) unjustified discrimination incurs a cost and therefore a competitive disadvantage.
Libertarians also argue that freedom of association, in a political context, is merely the extension of the right to determine with whom to associate in one's personal life. For example, somebody who valued good manners or etiquette may not relish associating with someone who was not decent or was uncouth. Or, a homophobe probably would not enjoy associating with gay people. In both instances, a person is voluntarily deciding with whom to associate, based on his/her own volition. Libertarians believe that freedom of association, in the political sphere, is not such a fanciful or unrealistic notion, since individual human beings already choose with whom they would like to associate based on a variety of reasons.
The South African Constitution's Bill of Rights enshrines the right to freedom of association in Section 18, which states “Everyone has the right to freedom of association.” Furthermore Section 17 states “Everyone has the right, peacefully and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket and to present petitions”, effectively enshrining the right freedom of assembly. Workers' right to freedom of association in terms of the right to form trade unions and collective bargaining is recognised in Section 17.
While the United States Constitution's First Amendment identifies the rights to assemble and to petition the government, the text of the First Amendment does not make specific mention of a right to association. Nevertheless, the United States Supreme Court has held that the freedom of association is an essential part of the Freedom of Speech because, in many cases, people can engage in effective speech only when they join with others. The Supreme Court has found the Constitution to protect the freedom of association in two cases:
The holding of Runyon is that the defendant private schools were free to express and teach their views, such as white separatism, but could not discriminate on the basis of race in the provision of services to the general public. So, if the plaintiff African-American children wished to attend such private schools, and were clearly qualified in all respects (but race) and were able to pay the fees, and were willing to attend despite the fact that the school's professed principles were inconsistent with admitting them, then the schools were required by Section 1981 to admit them. This doctrine rests on the interpretation of a private contract as a "badge" of slavery when either party considers race in choosing the other.
In the international labour movement, the freedom of association is a right identified under international labour standards as the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain. Freedom of association, in this sense, is recognized as a fundamental human right by a number of documents including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Labor Organization Convention C87 and Convention C98 -- two of the eight fundamental, core international labour standards.