Use Knox V. SEIU to Attack Money in Politics, Pt. 2

AlitoBy Josh Sager


Knox V. SEIU

During the 2012 term of the Supreme Court, the court heard and decided upon the case of Knox v. SEIU. This case, and the precedent it sets, involves the rights of public unions to compel donations from their members for the express purpose of political speech.

In 2005, the California Service Employees International Union (SEIU) attempted to increase its members’ dues for a temporary increase in political spending during the upcoming 2006 political cycle; this increase was minor for each person paying union dues, totaling a sum of $6.45 a month, yet some people objected. Several non-union members, who still paid union dues to their support collective bargaining (referred to as “chargeable expenses”), challenged the increase due to their disagreement with the recipient of the political expenditures of the union. These people sued the SEIU to stop their money from supporting political speech which they didn’t agree with, and, in January 2012, the court was heard by the United States Supreme Court.


The decision in Knox v. SEIU, derived from a 7-2 ruling and written by Samuel Alito, decided that the SEIU had violated the 1st Amendment rights of its members by compelling a political donation without prior consent. This decision rested heavily upon the compulsion of belonging to a union, thus supporting political speech by the union, created by current law. Since people were mandated by the government to pay SEIU dues, and these dues were considered “political speech” (due the Buckley v. Valeo defining money as speech and United States v. United Foods Inc. defining compulsory political speech as unconstitutional), the government was determined to be mandating speech.

As the government cannot mandate political speech under the 1st Amendment, the Supreme Court decided that the SEIU increasing political “speech” without consent was unconstitutional. 

Current California state and federal law allows for the creation of “union shops” -- places of business that require workers to pay union dues, regardless of whether they are union members -- and supports the compulsion that all workers must pay union dues. Knox v. SEIU separates the primary goal of the union, collective bargaining, from the secondary goal of political input, and names it unconstitutional for a public sector union to compel donations aimed at political speech.

From the Syllabus of the case, explaining current stare decisis on compulsory speech: 

When a State establishes an “agency shop” that exacts compulsory union fees as a condition of public employment, “[t]he dissenting employee is forced to support financially an organization with whose principles and demands he may disagree.”   Ellis  v.  Railway Clerks, 466 U. S. 435, 455.  This form of compelled speech and association imposes a “significant impingement on First Amendment rights.”  Ibid.  The justification for permitting a union to collect fees from nonmembers—to prevent them from free-riding on the union’s efforts—is an anomaly.  Similarly, requiring objecting nonmembers to opt out of paying the nonchargeable portion of union dues―rather than exempting them unless they opt in―represents a remarkable boon for unions, creating a risk that the fees nonmembers pay will be used to further political and ideological  ends  with  which  they  do  not  agree. Thus, Hudson, far from calling for a balancing of rights or interests, made it clear that any procedure for exacting fees from unwilling contributors must be “carefully tailored to minimize the infringement” of free speech rights, 475 U. S. 302−303, and it cited cases holding that measures burdening the freedom of speech or association must serve a compelling interest and must not be significantly broader than necessary to serve that interest. – Knox v. SEIU Syllabus, Pg. 3

The central premise of Knox v. SEIU can be condensed down to a very simple question: Can an organization which the government mandates citizens to financially support compel those citizens to pay additional fees -- without prior consent –- aimed at supporting the organization’s political speech? The decision of Knox v. SEIU clearly states that such compelled donations without prior consent are unconstitutional infringements upon the 1st Amendment.

Excerpt from the opinions of the court - Pg. 2 - written by Samuel Alito in concurrence with Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, Sotomayor, and Ginsberg: 

“The First Amendment, we held, does not permit a public-sector union to adopt procedures that have the effect of requiring objecting nonmembers to lend the union money to be used for political, ideological, and other purposes not germane to collective bargaining.”

The ultimate result of Knox v. SEIU is that public sector unions will no longer be able to compel political donations from members who don’t give prior consent to their funds being used for political speech. While unions are acknowledged to provide a primary service to all workers in a workplace, meaning these workers must pay union dues regardless of personal preference, the secondary goals of these unions cannot compel increased funding; in short, by defining the primary purpose of public sector unions as the facilitation of collective bargaining and separating this purpose from that of political spending, the court has reduced the ability of unions to compel funds for their political speech.

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published this page in Blog 2012-07-13 12:16:22 -0400

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