Law & Courts

Justices to Weigh Union Fees, Broadcast Indecency

By Mark Walsh — June 28, 2011 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up a case dealing with public-employee unions’ special assessments for political spending. And the justices will once again attempt to sort out the constitutional issues surrounding broadcasting rules meant to protect children from indecency.

The two cases were among 11 added Monday to the high court’s docket for the next term. The announcements came amid a flurry of opinions and other activity on the last formal day of the current term, which included a decision striking down a California law that barred the sale of violent video games to minors.

In the union case, Knox v. Service Employees International Union, Local 1000 (Case No. 10-1121), the court will take up the intricate area of law surrounding the agency fees, or service fees, that public-employee unions charge non-union members for collective-bargaining benefits and other permissible costs. Several of the Supreme Court’s key precedents in this area involved teachers’ unions, though the new case involves a unit of the SEIU that represents California state government employees.

The high court agreed to review a December 2010 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, that upheld a 2005 special assessment charged to union members and non-members alike for certain political activities, including to fight two anti-union state ballot measures. The appeal was brought on behalf of objecting non-union members by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, based in Springfield, Va.

The Supreme Court has sided with right-to-work forces in several recent cases, and the new case could be highly relevant as teachers’ unions and other public-employee unions gear up to respond to state legislative measures aimed at curbing their collective-bargaining rights.

In the broadcast-indecency case, Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television Stations (No. 10-1293), the court will take up a case that began with celebrities such as Bono and Nicole Richie uttering expletives on the air during live awards shows in 2003 and 2004.

In 2009, the high court upheld FCC orders fining broadcasters for the fleeting expletives on administrative grounds, but it remanded the case to a federal appeals court to address constitutional issues. The court found that the FCC “could reasonably conclude that the pervasiveness of foul language, and the coarsening of public entertainment in other media such as cable, justify more stringent regulation of broadcast programs so as to give conscientious parents a relatively safe haven for their children.”

On remand, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, held that the FCC’s entire indecency policy was unconstitutionally vague because it left broadcasters to guess whether an expletive could permissibly be aired in circumstances such as a news interview or when such words were essential to the nature of an artistic or educational work.

The justices agreed to hear the FCC’s appeal of that decision, though the court framed the question as whether the agency’s “current indecency-enforcement regime violates the First or Fifth Amendment of the Constitution.”

Both cases will be heard in the court’s next term, which begins on the first Monday in October.

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A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.