Old Dominion Branch No. 496, National Association of Letter Carriers, AFL-CIO v. Austin

PETITIONER: Old Dominion Branch No. 496, National Association of Letter Carriers, AFL-CIO
RESPONDENT: Henry M. Austin, et al.
LOCATION: Richmond Post Office

DOCKET NO.: 72-1180
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1972-1975)
LOWER COURT: Supreme Court of Virginia

CITATION: 418 US 264 (1974)
ARGUED: Nov 14, 1973
DECIDED: Jun 25, 1974

ADVOCATES:
Mozart G. Ratner - for appellants
Parker E. Cherry - for appellees
Stephen M. Kapral - for appellees

Facts of the case

In the spring of 1970, Old Dominion Branch No. 496 of the National Association of Letter Carriers was recognized by postal authorities as the exclusive local collective-bargaining representative of the letter carriers of the Richmond, Virginia, area. Although already representing the majority of letter carriers, the Branch was involved in an ongoing campaign to convince the remaining letter carriers to join the organization. As part of this effort, the Branch’s monthly newsletter published a list of those who had not yet joined the union under the heading “List of Scabs.” After his name appeared twice in the list, Henry Austin complained to the Richmond Postmaster and the President of the Branch. Several weeks later, the list appeared again accompanied by a well-known piece of trade literature describing the despicable nature of a scab. Austin and the other appellees sued for defamation. The appellants moved to dismiss and argued that the publication was protected speech under the First Amendment and federal libel laws. The trial court judge instructed the jury that state libel laws were applicable to such speech if the jury found that the statements were made with actual malice. The jury found in favor of the appellees and awarded damages. The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed.

Question

Does the First Amendment protect speech in labor dispute cases from the application of state libel laws?

Media for Old Dominion Branch No. 496, National Association of Letter Carriers, AFL-CIO v. Austin

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 14, 1973 in Old Dominion Branch No. 496, National Association of Letter Carriers, AFL-CIO v. Austin

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 25, 1974 in Old Dominion Branch No. 496, National Association of Letter Carriers, AFL-CIO v. Austin

Warren E. Burger:

The disposition of the 72-1180 Old Dominion Branch of the National Letter Carriers Association against Austin will be announced by Mr. Justice Marshall.

Thurgood Marshall:

This case is here on appeal from the Judge of the Supreme Court of Virginia upholding liable judgments in damages against the appellants, the National Association of Letter Carriers and its Richmond local.

The local was recognized as exclusive bargaining representative of Postal Workers in Richmond under the provisions of Executive Order 11491, governing Labor Relations and Federal Employment.

Although a majority of the letter carriers in Richmond were members of that union, the union was engaged in an effort to organize the remainder.

As a part of that effort, the union published, in its monthly newsletter, a List of Scabs, as it was called, i.e., a list of those who had not yet joined the union.

And accompanied this was the majority of application of scab which is generally attributed to Jack London.

The appellees, who are three postal workers, whose names were included in the List of Scabs, brought this liable action and each recovered $10,000 compensatory damages and $45,000 punitive damages.

The Supreme Court of Virginia affirmed.

We reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Virginia.

In an opinion today filed with the clerk, we hold that this case is governed by this Court’s 1966 opinion in Linn versus Plant Guard Workers, Where this Court held that the application of the State liable laws and labor disputes was preempted by the Federal Labor Laws unless the liable statements were made with knowledge of their false appeal with reckless disregard from the truth.

Although this case involves Executive Order 11491 rather than the National Labor Relations Act involved in Linn, we think that this same standard adopted by analogy from our decision in New York Times against Sullivan should govern here.

We also hold that on the facts of this case, there was a labor dispute within the meaning of the Linn decision or the union’s organizing activity here, throughout the recognition of the union, was still entitled to the protection of Federal Labor Law.

Applying the New York Times standard, we find that the liable judgments here cannot stand.

The newsletter’s application of the List of Scabs cannot be actionable, because the use of the use of the word ‘scab’ which is literally and factually accurate, and Federal Labor Law permits the use of epithets of this kind.

Similarly, Jack London’s definition of the scab cannot be the basis for liable judgment, because we do not believe that it conveyed any false representation of fact, but rather the union’s strong disagreement with those who refuse to join the union.

Mr. Justice Douglas has filed an opinion concurring in the result.

Mr. Justice Powell has filed a dissenting opinion in which the Chief Justice and Mr. Justice Rehnquist join.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you Mr. Justice Marshall.