FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Teachers File Lawsuit Against Their Unions To Protect Their First Amendment Rights
StudentsFirst Supports Effort To Secure Teachers' Rights
Los Angeles, April 3, 2015 – A lawsuit filed today in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California seeks to protect the First Amendment rights of more than 295,000 California public school teachers. The complaint explains that California teachers who wish to exercise their well-established First Amendment right to refrain from contributing to their unions’ political agenda “are stripped of important employment-related benefits and denied the right to vote in employment-related matters.”
“Across California, public school teachers are being forced to choose between important employment benefits like paid maternity leave and their own political values,” said plaintiff Bhavini Bhakta. “It’s unfair. I appreciate my union and want to stay a member. But I don’t want to be forced to fund political activities that contradict my core beliefs on education.”
The plaintiffs are California teachers who are members of their national, state and local unions. They support their unions’ collective bargaining activities and wish to remain union members, but they do not want to fund their unions’ political activities, as is their First Amendment right. Under California law, teachers are unable to exercise this right without being forced to abandon union membership and the significant employment-related benefits that members receive. The plaintiffs have sued to remedy this injustice.
The teachers are being represented by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. “The California system unconstitutionally punishes teachers for choosing not to pay the political portion of their dues, depriving them of important employment-related benefits and voting rights,” said Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr. of Gibson Dunn, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the case and a First Amendment expert. “The First Amendment does not tolerate this unequal treatment based on a teacher’s political views.”
The suit is supported by StudentsFirst, a bipartisan advocacy group working to improve America's schools. “This case is about fairness,” said Jim Blew, President of StudentsFirst. “If the plaintiffs prevail, teachers will still be able to voluntarily contribute to their unions’ political activities. But teachers who do not want to pay for those activities will no longer be treated as second-class citizens.”
Union dues for California teachers are divided into two categories. The first category covers the cost of unions’ collective bargaining activities, such as negotiating with school districts for higher wages. All California teachers must pay this portion of their dues, and the teachers involved in this suit have no objection to doing so.
In addition to these collective bargaining dues, however, unions also collect a second category of dues. These dues finance the unions’ political and ideological activities, including lobbying efforts and contributions to candidates and ballot measures. California teachers unions collect and spend millions of dollars each year on such political activities.
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly declared that teachers have the right to opt out of paying these political dues. But under the current California system, they are deprived of union membership in order to do so. This means they are stripped of their right to vote on the terms of their own employment and denied access to members-only benefits, including certain maternity leave benefits, disability insurance, and legal representation.
California teachers thus face an untenable choice—they must either financially support political speech against their will or lose important employment-related benefits. Punishing the exercise of First Amendment rights in this manner violates the U.S. Constitution.
The plaintiffs are asking the Court to safeguard their right to free speech by declaring the current system unconstitutional and enjoining its enforcement. If they succeed, teachers in California will be able to remain union members and enjoy members-only benefits without being coerced into sponsoring the unions’ political agenda.
Many legal precedents support the teachers’ claims. In the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the Supreme Court held that requiring teachers to pay dues to support unions’ ideological and political activities violates teachers’ First Amendment rights. In addition, the Court cautioned that unions may not punish teachers who exercise their First Amendment rights by treating them differently from other teachers. Many subsequent Supreme Court decisions, including Knox v. Service Employees International Union, Local 1000, decided in 2012, have extended and elaborated on this ruling.