Supreme Court Victory for the First Amendment

The Supreme Court decided Knox v. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) today, delivering an important victory for the First Amendment. 

The case originated in California, which is not a right-to-work state. There, public unions may collect dues from non-union workers and finance political campaigns, as long as they issue a “Hudson notice” allowing non-union members to opt out of political expenditures. This case arose out of the SEIU’s decision to campaign against two California ballot initiatives after already issuing a “Hudson notice.” To fund these additional campaign expenses, SEIU levied a temporary union fee increase without inviting non-union members to opt out. In practice, this forced the non-union members to pay for a political campaign they might oppose, at least until the next “Hudson notice.”

In response, the Supreme Court held

Under the First Amendment, when a union imposes a special as­sessment or dues increase levied to meet expenses that were not dis­closed when the regular assessment was set, it must provide a fresh notice and may not exact any funds from nonmembers without their affirmative consent.

In other words, as Justice Sotomayor’s concurring opinion argues, the Supreme Court found, “for the very first time, that the First Amendment does require an opt-in system in some circumstances: the levying of a special assessment or dues increase.”

This is a great win for the First Amendment and the freedom from forced political speech. It is easy to understand why anything hampering the ability of unions to extract money from the American workforce would make the far Left apoplectic. In 2005, an opt-in regime would have prevented the SEIU from using a fee increase to oppose two California ballot initiatives, one capping government spending, and the other restricting unions’ use of dues for political purposes. What is harder to justify is the objection to the Court’s ruling, which essentially gives workers the ability to decide for themselves whether they want to support the same political causes as the union imposing the fee. The ruling vindicates the First Amendment and puts public unions on the same playing field as every other entity that has to raise money by persuading people that its cause is worth a contribution.

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