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Supreme Court's conservatives appear set to strike down union fees on free speech grounds

David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Paying union dues and baking a wedding cake may not seem like classic examples of free speech -- except perhaps at the Supreme Court.

This year, the high court is poised to announce its most significant expansion of the First Amendment since the Citizens United decision in 2010, which struck down laws that limited campaign spending by corporations, unions and the very wealthy.

Now the "money is speech" doctrine is back and at the heart of a case to be heard this month that threatens the financial foundation of public employee unions in 22 "blue" states.

Like Citizens United, the union case is being closely watched for its potential to shift political power in states and across the nation.

The legal attack on the campaign funding laws was brought by conservative activists who hoped that the free flow of money from wealthy donors would boost Republican candidates. And since 2010, the GOP has achieved big gains in Congress and in state legislatures across the nation.

Conservatives also believe the attack on mandatory union fees has the potential to weaken the public sector unions that are strong supporters of the Democratic Party.

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"This is a big deal," Illinois' Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner said in September on the day the Supreme Court said it would hear the lawsuit that he initiated. A court victory would be "transformative for the state of Illinois, transformative for America and the relationship between our taxpayers and the people who work for our taxpayers."

Still pending before the high court is the case of the baker from Colorado who says he has a free speech right as a Christian to refuse to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. A ruling in his favor would carve out a religious freedom exemption to the civil rights laws in the 21 states that require businesses open to the public to provide full and equal service to all, including gays and lesbians.

At issue in the union case is whether public employees can be required to pay a fee to cover the cost of collective bargaining and resolving grievances, even if they have personal objections to the union.

In 28 states, "right to work" laws prohibit contracts that require employees to join or support a union. In recent years, formerly strong union states including Michigan, Wisconsin and Indiana adopted such laws.

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