Knox v. Service Employees International Union

PETITIONER: Dianne Knox, et al.
RESPONDENT: Service Employees International Union, Local 1000

DOCKET NO.: 10-1121
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 567 US (2012)
GRANTED: Jun 27, 2011
ARGUED: Jan 10, 2012
DECIDED: Jun 21, 2012

Jeremiah Collins -
Jeremiah A. Collins - for the respondents
William J. Young - for the petitioners

Facts of the case

All California state employees are required to pay a fee to the Service Employees International Union for its representation of them, and the union is required to tell employees how the money is spent and how to object. The union wanted to collect a special assessment for a "Political Fight Back Fund" in 2005. But some nonmembers wanted the union to give them a new notice and a new chance to object. They filed a class-action lawsuit seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and equitable restitution for violations of the nonmembers' rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The district court agreed, siding with the nonmembers. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.


(1) May a State, consistent with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, condition employment on the payment of a special union assessment intended solely for political and ideological expenditures without first providing a notice that includes information about that assessment and provides an opportunity to object to its exaction?

(2) May a State, consistent with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, condition continued public employment on the payment of union agency fees for purposes of financing political expenditures for ballot measures?

Media for Knox v. Service Employees International Union

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 21, 2012 (Part 2) in Knox v. Service Employees International Union
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 10, 2012 in Knox v. Service Employees International Union

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 21, 2012 (Part 1) in Knox v. Service Employees International Union

Elena Kagan:

Justice Alito has the opinion of the Court this morning in Case 10-1121, Knox versus Service Employees Independent Union.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

This is a case about compelled speech on matters at the heart of the First Amendment.

The question is whether the First Amendment allows a public-sector union to require employees who are not members of the union to pay a special fee to support the union's political and ideological activities, even if those members -- non-members do not choose to do so.

In 2005, the citizens of the State of California were engaged in a wide-ranging political debate regarding state budget deficits and in particular, the budget consequences of growing compensation for public employees backed by public-sector unions.

The Governor called for a special election in November of that year to consider, among other things, two controversial ballot initiatives that would have limited the collection of mandatory union fees and given the Governor the ability to reduce state appropriations.

These measures were vigorously opposed by public-sector unions including the respondent in this case, the Service Employees International Union.

A few months before the special election, the union sent out a notice to all of the employees and its bargaining unit concerning a special fee that would be taken automatically from the employees' paychecks to establish a political Fight-Back Fund.

According to the union's announcement, the multimillion dollar fund was needed to achieve the union's political objectives, both in the special election and in opposing the Governor's reelection the following year.

The union stated that the money would be used as follows: “For a broad range of political expenses, including television and radio advertising, direct mail, voter registrations, voter education and get out the vote activities in our work sites and in communities across California.”

The union specifically stated, “The fund will not be used for regular costs of the union, such as office rents, staff salaries or routine equipment replacement, etcetera.”

It noted that “All other public worker unions are in the process of raising the extraordinary funds needed to defeat the Governor.”

A subsequent letter from the union said that the money from the Political Fight-Back Fund would help “to elect a governor and a legislature who support public employees and the services they provide”.

Covered employees were not given any choice about whether they would pay into the fund.

A group of nonunion employees who were forced to pay the fee filed the present lawsuit alleging a violation of their First Amendment rights.

The Federal District Court granted summary judgment in favor of the employees, but the Ninth Circuit reversed.

We granted certiorari, and we now reverse the judgment of the Ninth Circuit.

The First Amendment not only protects our right to speak out on political issues, it also protects the right not to be forced to say things with which we disagree.

Nevertheless, our prior cases have allowed state and local governments to extract fees from the paychecks of nonunion employees and give that money to a union in order to pay for collective bargaining.

We have recognized that this is a serious impingement, that's the word our cases have used, we recognize that this is a serious impingement on employees' free speech rights because it requires them to subsidize the form of union speech that they might not support, but we have, nevertheless, tolerated this First Amendment impingement on the theory that collective bargaining tends to benefit all employees who are covered by contracts negotiated by the union.

We have drawn the line, however, at union's political and idealogical activities, which include lobbying, supporting political candidates and other types of general election hearing.

These activities go beyond the realm of collective bargaining, and they cannot be forced -- they cannot be financed by compulsory fees.

In a case called Teachers versus Hudson, decided in 1986, we established certain procedures that a union must follow to ensure that unwilling employees are not forced to pay any portion of their regular dues for these political and ideological expenses.

In the present case, we consider a different situation.

Whereas Hudson concerned the procedures that a union must follow when collecting regular fees on an annual basis, the present case concerns the First Amendment requirements applicable to a special fee, levied to meet expenses that were not disclosed when the regular dues notices were sent.

Our precedents make clear that compulsory subsidies for private speech are subject to exacting First Amendment scrutiny.

Thus, as we said in Hudson, unions that exact fees from nonmembers must follow procedures that are "carefully tailored to minimize the infringement of free speech rights”.

Under that standard, the union's conduct in this case is indefensible.

There is no justification for the union's failure to give employees a choice as to whether they wanted to support the Political Fight-Back Fund.

When the controversial new fund was announced, some employees undoubtedly objected to paying into it even though they had failed to object to paying nonchargeable expenses at the start of the year.

The union and the dissent argued that we should not be concerned that nonmembers were required to contribute to a political campaign with which they disagreed because they, in effect, get a refund of this money when they paid -- they got a refund of this money when they paid their annual dues the following year.