In our opinion: Supreme Court ruling in Harris v. Quinn is an important victory for freedom of association

Published: Thursday, July 3 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, July 8 2014 12:29 p.m. MDT

The Supreme Court in Washington.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

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In addition to issuing its landmark decision regarding the free exercise of religion by businesses, including the retail chain Hobby Lobby, on Monday the Supreme Court also decided Harris v. Quinn, reaffirming individual First Amendment rights of association.

In the case, home health care aides paid through Medicaid were being required to pay dues to public sector unions engaged in political activities objected to by the caregivers. The caregivers had argued that they should not be compelled to pay dues to advance a political agenda that conflicted with their own.

In a 5-4 decision, the high court agreed. Justice Samuel Alito wrote the following in his majority decision: “Except perhaps in the rarest of circumstances, no person in this country may be compelled to subsidize speech by a third party that he or she does not wish to support.”

This is a compelling principle, although its application here is narrowly applied.

The Harris decision confronted the prior 1977 ruling Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which empowered a Michigan teachers' union to collect union dues from non-union teachers. In that case, the reasoning went, those outside of the union still benefited from the union’s collective bargaining. Therefore government still had the authority to collect “fair share” fees from public sector employees to solve the problem of “free riders” who choose not to join the union solely to avoid paying dues. The plaintiffs in the Harris case insisted that free speech protections outweighed the free rider considerations and asked that Abood therefore be overruled.

Although the justices didn’t overrule Abood, the current decision avoids the precedent by reasoning that the home care aides bringing suit weren’t really “full-fledged” public sector employees because they “are almost entirely answerable to the customers and not to the State.”

Some advocates for unions breathed a sigh of relief that the limited scope of the decision means that there will be a minimal impact on collective bargaining rights overall. In addition, the ability of these unions to collect “fair share” fees from most public employees remains more or less intact.

The First Amendment guarantees freedom of association along with free speech, and the high court found that “freedom of association … plainly pre-supposes a freedom not to associate.” Surely that freedom ought to apply to an individual required to forfeit their resources to an organization that person does not wish to join. Harris provides an important articulation of these important First Amendment principles of association and is a welcome step in the right direction.

Editors Note: This editorial has been corrected to property identify the government health care program through which home health care aides were required to pay union dues.

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