U.S. Supreme Court - The FindLaw U.S. Supreme Court Opinion Summaries Blog

High Court Uses First Amendment Sword to Bust Janus

The highly anticipated decision in Janus v. American Federation was released this morning as the High Court ended the term. Surprisingly, not only did the Court overturn the decision, it overruled the longstanding precedent in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.

In short, the Court ruled that government employees who are not members of a union that nevertheless represents their interests in collective bargaining cannot be compelled to pay fees or costs related to the collective bargaining.

First Amendment Subsidization

As Justice Alito, writing for the 5 to 4 majority, paints the broad strokes of the decision at the outset:

Under Illinois law, public employees are forced to subsidize a union, even if they choose not to join and strongly object to the positions the union takes in collective bargaining and related activities. We conclude that this arrangement violates the free speech rights of nonmembers by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.

Reading on, it is clear that Alito views the central question as one of whether the government can compel speech, rather than restrict it.

Whenever the Federal Government or a State prevents individuals from saying what they think on important matters or compels them to voice ideas with which they disagree, it undermines these ends. When speech is compelled, however, additional damage is done. In that situation, individuals are coerced into betraying their convictions. Forcing free and independent individuals to endorse ideas they find objectionable is always demeaning, and for this reason, one of our landmark free speech cases said that a law commanding "involuntary affirmation" of objected-to beliefs would require "even more immediate and urgent grounds" than a law demanding silence.

Curiosity Killed the First Amendment

For many legal scholars, the United States Supreme Court decision in Janus is more than just a big loss for labor advocates. That's because, as Justice Sotomayor points out in her one paragraph, apologetic, dissent, the First Amendment is now being used aggressively. Using the common idioms, it's easy to see that the First Amendment is being used as a sword, rather than a shield.

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