Might Federal Preemption of Speech-Protective State Laws Violate the First Amendment?
Say that a state creates a law that protects speech more than the First Amendment does; for instance, say that the state law protects speakers against retaliation or exclusion by
- private employers,
- private educational institutions,
- private shopping mall owners, or
- private social media platforms.
And say that Congress preempts that state law, for instance allowing the private entities to restrict speech on their property (or by their employees or students).
Could that federal law potentially violate the First Amendment, even though it doesn’t actually forbid speech, but simply empowers private entities to do so?
Vivek Ramaswamy’s and Jed Rubenfeld’s Jan. 11 Wall Street Journal op-ed suggests the answer is yes; and on reflection, I think there is a good argument for a version of that position, though I’m not sure whether I’m persuaded by it myself. I’d therefore like to lay out in this post what I think is the best argument inspired by their claims, though not one that necessarily agrees with them in all details.
[1.] Let us begin with a precedent. (Remember, “law is the only discipline in which ‘that’s an original idea’ is a pejorative.”) In 1943, Nebraska enacted a state constitutional provision that provided that employers and unions can’t require employees to join unions. In the Railway Labor Act of 1951, Congress preempted such state statutes, allowing (but not requiring) railroad employers and railroad unions to demand union membership as a condition of employment. Employees sued a railroad and a union under the Nebraska state provision for imposing such a “closed shop” contract. The defendants raised the federal Act as a defense, arguing that it preempted the state provision.
The U.S. Supreme Court (Railway Employes v. Hanson (1956)) concluded that the Railway Labor Act’s preemption of state law needed to be evaluated under the First Amendment:
The union shop provision of the Railway Labor Act is only permissive. Congress has not compelled nor required carriers and employees to enter into union shop agreements. [But we agree with] the view that justiciable questions under the First and Fifth Amendments were presented since Congress, by the union shop provision of the Railway Labor Act, sought to strike down inconsistent laws in 17 States. [We agree that] “Such action on the part of Congress is a necessary part of every union shop contract entered into on the railroads as far as these 17 States are concerned for without it such contracts could not be enforced therein.” …
If private rights [presumably rights secured by the Nebraska no-closed-shop provision] are being invaded, it is by force of an agreement made pursuant to federal law which expressly declares that state law is superseded. In other words, the federal statute is the source of the power and authority by which any private rights are lost or sacrificed. The enactment of the federal statute authorizing union shop agreements is the governmental action on which the Constitution operates, though it takes a private agreement to invoke the federal sanction.
The Court concluded that the Act was substantively consistent with the First Amendment, because mere “compulsory membership” in a union does not necessarily “impair freedom of expression,” in part because “Congress endeavored to safeguard against that possibility by making explicit that no conditions to membership may be imposed except as respects [the payment of union dues] …. If other conditions are in fact imposed, or if the exaction of dues … is used as a cover for forcing ideological conformity or other action in contravention of the First Amendment, this judgment will not prejudice the decision in that case.” And in Machinists v. Street (1961), the Court did suggest that the First Amendment would bar spending compulsory union dues collected under the Act “for political causes which [the coerced employee] opposes,” though the Court avoided that constitutional problem by reading the statute to prohibit such exactions of dues for political purposes.
Now Will Baude and I (and others) have argued that in fact the First Amendment inquiry here was substantively misplaced, and coercive contributions that are used for political causes are generally not unconstitutional. But this specific detail (on which the Court has disa
Article from Latest – Reason.com