By Ronald Miller, J.D.
Although Knight’s reasoning conflicts with the reasoning in Janus, the Supreme Court did not overrule Knight in Janus.
An employee’s claim that Ohio’s scheme of exclusive public-sector union representation violated her First Amendment was foreclosed under the Supreme Court’s decision in Minnesota State Board for Community Colleges v. Knight, the Eighth Circuit ruled, affirming the district court’s order granting summary judgment for a school district and union. When an earlier Supreme Court decision “has direct application in a case, yet appears to rest on reasons rejected in some other line of decisions, the Court of Appeals should follow the case which directly controls, leaving to [the Supreme] Court the prerogative of overruling its own decisions” (Thompson v. Marietta Education Association, August 25, 2020, Thapar, A.).
Exclusive representative. Under Ohio law, a union may become the exclusive bargaining representative for all public employees in a bargaining unit. To become an exclusive representative, the union must submit proof that a majority of the bargaining unit’s members wish to be represented by the union, Ohio Rev. Code § 4117.05(A)(1). Once a union has done so, public employers are required to collectively bargain with it.
The employee was not a member of the union. She objected to its policies and to any association with it. But because the union had been designated as her bargaining unit’s “exclusive representative,” it had a statutory right to represent her “for the purposes of collective bargaining.” So while the employee believed layoffs should occur based largely on merit rather than seniority, the union advocated to the contrary.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME, Council 31, the employee, a teacher, sued her union and employer, arguing that Ohio’s scheme of exclusive public-sector union representation violates the First Amendment. Both parties moved for summary judgment. The district court held that the employee’s challenge was foreclosed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Minnesota State Board for Community Colleges v. Knight, and thus granted summary judgment to the defendants. This appeal followed.
The employee raised two challenges to Ohio’s system of exclusive representation: (1) that it violated her rights to be free from compelled speech and association, and (2) that it violated her right to meaningfully communicate with the government. The Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court that both arguments were foreclosed by Supreme Court precedent.
Compelled speech. As an initial matter, the employee claimed that Ohio law impermissibly allows the union to speak on her behalf during collective-bargaining sessions, and that this amounted to compelled speech and association in violation of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has explained that “designating a union as the exclusive representative of nonmembers substantially restricts the nonmembers’ rights.” It has deemed exclusive public-sector bargaining “a significant impingement on associational freedoms that would not be tolerated in other contexts.”
Knight. In Knight, a group of nonunion community college instructors challenged Minnesota’s collective-bargaining statute. They objected to the state’s recognition of an exclusive representative to speak for all employees at “meet and confer” sessions. These sessions concerned subjects outside the scope of mandatory collective bargaining. In rejecting their challenge, the Supreme Court held that the instructors’ First Amendment rights were not unduly infringed because they remained “free to form whatever advocacy groups they like” and were “not required to become members of [the union].”
The Sixth Circuit found that Knight controlled here. If allowing exclusive representatives to speak for all employees at “meet and confer” sessions does not violate the First Amendment, it found no basis for concluding that the result should be different where the union engaged in more traditional collective-bargaining activities. Moreover, it noted that every other circuit to address the issue, including the First, Second, Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Circuits, has agreed.
Although Knight’s reasoning conflicts with the reasoning in Janus, the Supreme Court did not overrule Knight in Janus. Rather, when an earlier Supreme Court decision “has direct application in a case, yet appears to rest on reasons rejected in some other line of decisions, the Court of Appeals should follow the case which directly controls, leaving to [the Supreme] Court the prerogative of overruling its own decisions.”
Petition the government. The employee’s second claim fared no better. She argued that Ohio’s system of exclusive representation unconstitutionally burdened her First Amendment right to engage with the government through speech, association, and petition. She seemed to argue that by allowing the union to serve as her exclusive representative, the Ohio unconstitutionally tilted the playing field against her speech.
This argument conflicted with two Supreme Court decisions. In Smith v. Arkansas State Highway Employees, Local 1315, the Court held that the First Amendment imposes no “affirmative obligation on the government to listen, to respond[,] or… [to] bargain.” Thus, the government’s decision to bargain with someone else did not violate the employee’s rights. Further, citing Knight, the appeals court noted that a “person’s right to speak is not infringed when government simply ignores that person while listening to others.” Thus, Knight again foreclosed the employee’s claim.
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