Monday, December 24, 2012

A First Amendment Right to Fire Complaining Workers?

From a purely legal perspective, it's hard to beat the combination of federal labor law, employment law, and First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution, all arising in one case. But that's what happened in California when a group of newspaper employees, dissatisfied with the editorial policies of their boss, begin the process of union organizing to better negotiate with their management over the paper's editorial content. Part of their organizing efforts included encouraging newspaper subscribers to cancel their subscriptions, as well as making complaints about management's actions restricting the content of some of the reporters' and editors' story selections. Most of the active union supporters who did not resign were eventually fired, leading to the the predictable charge before the NLRB. As is typical under this administration, the Board sided with the employees, finding that the employer committed unfair labor practices.

But the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, probably the country's premier appellate court for these types of issues, sided with the company. Why it did is a fascinating look at what happens when constitutional rights collide with collective-bargaining rights.

As an initial matter, the Court noted that a newspaper publisher has "absolute discretion to determine the contents of its newspaper" under the First Amendment of the Constitution. Reporters and editors who are not publishers do not have a legitimate employee concern over the subject matter, at least under the National Labor Relations Act.

Given this straightforward preference for First Amendment rights over mere statutory rights, the Court had little trouble striking down the Board's order reinstating the fired employees.  Nor was the Court enamored of the Board's order that the newspaper publish a particular reporter's column (the column had been eliminated at least in part for the reporters prounion activities)  every week for the foreseeable future.  I have difficulty believing that somebody at the Board thought this was appropriate-such an order requires  the Board to become directly involved with the newspaper publisher's exercise of freedom of the press rights. The Court also chided the Board for ignoring the clear coercive effect of its order to reinstate the terminated prounion reporters and editors:  "It sanctions [the publisher] for trying to discipline employees who sought to remain on its payroll and at the same time called on newspaper readers of Santa Barbara to cancel their subscriptions because [the publisher] would not knuckle under to the employee's demands for editorial control."

The case is noteworthy for non-media publishers mainly because it presents a striking example of the Board's overreach under this administration. Given that the Board will have at least four more years of executive protection, we can expect to see this kind of regulatory stretch continue.

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