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Ban on Political Payroll Deductions by Local Governments Does Not Violate First Amendment

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March 2, 2009

The United States Supreme Court recently held that a state law banning political payroll deductions by local governments does not violate a union's right to free speech under the First Amendment. Ysursa v. Pocatello Educ. Ass'n, No. 07-869, 2/24/09.

In Ysursa, the Court considered the constitutionality of the Voluntary Contributions Act, an Idaho law that prohibited payroll deductions for political purposes. Under that statute, public employees may elect to have a portion of their wages deducted by their employers and remitted to their unions to pay union dues; however, they cannot have any portion deducted and remitted to a union political action committee. Unions that represented public employees in Idaho challenged the law, arguing that it violated their First Amendment right to free speech.

A majority of the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roberts, disagreed. Although the First Amendment prohibits government from abridging the freedom of speech, it does not require that government assist others in funding the expression of particular ideas or speech, including political speech. Here, the Court found that the Idaho law did not restrict the unions' political speech but simply declined to promote that speech through the use of political payroll deductions. The Court deemed this decision eminently reasonable in light of the State's interest in avoiding the appearance that "carrying out the public's business is tainted by partisan political activity." The Court also concluded that this interest extends to all public employers "at whatever level of government," whether they are State or local governmental entities.

In dissent, Justice Stevens and Justice Souter found that the Idaho legislation constituted an unlawful content-based restriction on speech, as the statute focused exclusively on unions and was intended to target union political activity.

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