WEA can't trump First Amendment

There’s a reason the Founding Fathers made freedom of speech the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. They understood that unfettered liberty to express dissent is the most basic of our freedoms and that, without it, everything else in the Constitution would be rendered meaningless.

It’s certainly arguable that, in a hypothetical court case pitting First Amendment rights against some other Constitutionally protected freedom, justice should always come down on the side of free speech. It’s beyond debate that the First Amendment should in every case trump laws dreamed up at the municipal, state or federal level.

That’s the whole point of having such freedoms enumerated in the Constitution, after all.

Then along comes the Washington State Division II Court of Appeals to turn everything on its ear.

In deciding earlier this summer to overturn a 2001 lawsuit against the Washington Education Association, the appellate court made no secret of its desire to promote and strengthen union representation at the expense of individual freedom of speech.

The case in question challenged whether the WEA had the right to take a portion of the dues all Washington state public school teachers are required to pay — whether or not they are members of the union — and use it to support political causes the teacher may not support.

The original court got it right when it concluded that forcing anyone to support a cause or candidate he or she opposes amounts to denying that person’s First Amendment rights.

Ironically, the Division II Court of Appeals conceded as much in its breathtakingly convoluted ruling. “Forcing non-members to contribute money to a labor union amounts to compelled association with the union and impacts their First Amendment free speech and association rights,” the court found. “Nevertheless, the state’s interest in facilitating collective bargaining and preventing free ridership justifies the compelled association.”

WEA President Charles Hasse put it even more arrogantly. “Ultimately,” he said, “it gets down to the people’s right to free association and to have a collective voice versus an individual right and how that’s resolved.”

In other words, it’s more important to preserve the strength (and political influence) of the teacher’s union than it is to uphold the first and most critical amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And if that means confiscating money from people who’d rather not pay it to support political candidates and causes they don’t agree with, so be it.

By what tortured logic could the appeals court have arrived at such a decision?

There’s nothing wrong with union membership; it’s a legal and, for many, beneficial personal choice. Under no circumstances, however, should membership or even participation be compulsory, and the state has no stake in supporting or encouraging it — particularly when doing so means trampling First Amendment Rights.

Contrary to the whims of the Division II Court, it is not now nor has it ever been the role of the state to facilitate collective bargaining or prevent free ridership. Those positions deserve the protection of the court, but not its encouragement — and certainly not at the expense of free speech.

The Washington State Public Disclosure Commission has announced its desire to appeal this misguided ruling to the state Supreme Court, and the Attorney General’s Office should do so immediately and vigorously.

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