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What is Freedom of Association?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 01 December 2016
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Freedom of association is an individual right granted or regulated by constitutional documents, charters, and legal bodies. In essence, the right to association means that a person can belong to any lawful group or associate with any person or type of people that he or she chooses. Freedom of association is often used interchangeably with freedom of assembly, though assembly generally indicates a political context, such as the right to peaceable protest.

Many countries have adopted constitutional amendments or laws that protect this individual freedom. Examples include the United States, Germany, Turkey, Taiwan, and Canada. Some multinational doctrines on human rights also include provisions for assembly and association, including the Universal Doctrine of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. It is important to note, however, that while these laws and guarantees exist, they are unevenly enforced throughout the world.

The concept of freedom to associate is fraught with interesting legal and even moral dilemmas, some of which seem may seem surprisingly against the spirit of the idea. For instance, freedom of association was long used in the United States as a means of defending segregationist and sexist policies at businesses, social clubs, and even trade organizations. For instance, it could be argued that since the right ensures that a person can associate with individuals of similar values or lifestyles, it also includes the right to choose not to associate with those that do not share similar values or lifestyles.

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Labor unions have been a major source of strife and debate about freedom of association. History is soaked with the blood of riots and struggles over the right of workers to create a union to protect their rights. Even America's beloved Walt Disney stands accused of interfering with this freedom, as many tales suggest he cut wages and hired thugs to intimidate cartoonists planning the formation of a labor union. On the other hand, some labor unions are equally well known for pressuring new workers to join or risk ostracizing treatment or even violence by union members.

With the growth of international corporations, the maintenance of freedom of association is an important issue. If, for instance, a Canadian manufacturer wants to open a plant in a country where labor unions are illegal, does the company have a responsibility to allow unions even in the face of opposing local laws? Some socially-minded corporations skirt this issue by insisting on fair labor practices as a part of business, to protect worker's rights even if unions are not allowed in the area. Unfortunately, however some businesses exploit the lack of unions to increase profit margins by using child and underpaid labor, even if this practice is illegal in the business's home country.

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