The US Supreme Court will hear the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, where some anti-union high school teachers are trying to avoid paying an agency fee to the union that represents them, as part of the so-called “right to work” campaign.
Let’s ignore for a moment the devastating effects such a ruling against the unions would have on teacher and faculty unions, and rights of all teachers to choose these democratic institutions to be a collective voice for their needs. Instead, let’s just focus on the question at hand: is being forced to support a union a violation of First Amendment rights?
The argument is based on the notion of “forced speech,” that individuals cannot be forced to express an idea they disagree with. But union fees are not “forced speech.” Obviously, no one is forcing any teachers to agree with what a union says or does. Instead, this is “forced subsidy of speech.” Workers are forced for pay for the activities of unions even though they might not agree ideologically with all of their stands.
Not only is “forced subsidy of speech” legally sound, but it is also a wonderful thing; in fact, this concept is the foundation of institutions in a free society, especially universities.
After all, universities exist solely because of the principle of “forced subsidy of speech.” Imagine if a student could claim a First Amendment right not to pay tuition because their money might partly be used to support expression (by individual professors, or by the administration) that they disagree with. Since every single student with a brain disagrees with many of ideas they are subsidizing with their tuition, every student at a public college would be able to claim a Constitutional right not to pay tuition based on this doctrine of “forced subsidy of speech.”
And why not also apply the rule to taxpayers who help fund colleges and public libraries and other institutions that pay people for the expression of ideas that some people don’t agree with? If “forced subsidy of speech” is illegal, why shouldn’t every taxpayer be entitled to a property tax refund for the proportion of books bought that the taxpayer disagrees with?
If the anti-union Supreme Court rules that “forced subsidy of speech” is prohibited, it would set a precedent that could be extraordinarily destructive of free speech (in addition to helping to destroy the union movement, which is the goal of the lawsuit and its supporters). There is no principled difference between a teacher “forced” to pay fees for a union whose leadership and staff expresses views they disagree with, and a student “forced” to pay tuition for a university whose leadership and staff expresses views they disagree with. (Actually, there is one important difference: unions are much more democratic than universities, and so union members have the opportunity to convince their fellow workers to change the leadership or to abolish the union, whereas students are truly compelled to subsidize speech they disagree with without any other options.)
Once you adopt the freeloader model for unions, and claim that free expression you disagree with is a violation of your rights even in democratic institutions such as unions, it could have devastating effects on academic freedom if the same logic is applied to all of higher education. We all have a right to free expression. But we don’t have the right to cut off funding for institutions that support viewpoints we disagree with. That’s not a defense of freedom of speech, it’s an attempt to destroy it.