The Utah Legislature has enacted what is known as the Voluntary Contributions Act (VCA), which prohibits any state or local public employer from withholding voluntary political contributions from employees’ paychecks. Several labor unions banded together in a federal court lawsuit alleging that the VCA violated the First Amendment to the United States Constitution by restricting public employees’ political speech.
The federal Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the unions and held that the law was unconstitutional. The Court started with the proposition that payroll deductions constituted speech protected by the First Amendment. In the Court’s view, “political spending produces speech at the core of the First Amendment. Consequently, contribution and expenditure limits operate in the area of the most fundamental First Amendment activities and have long been reviewed by courts as burdening protected speech. By banning a contribution method preferred by many union members, the VCA increases the difficulty of contributing to labor union political funds. It is thus unavoidable then, to some degree, the VCA burdens political speech.”
The Court then turned to the question of whether the burden on political speech was unconstitutional. Being a constitutional challenge, the Court found, the VCA had to be “closely drawn to match a sufficiently important interest.” The Court criticized the State for failing to provide a record of precisely what its interests were in enacting the VCA: “The State offers little argument supporting an important government interest in the VCA. The State does say in general terms that the VCA avoids disruption of government workplaces by partisan politics. Although a politically neutral workplace might constitute a sufficient government interest under a mere reasonableness test, it fails under the scrutiny applied in First Amendment cases. Generally, the only accepted justification for contribution limits has been the government’s interest in combating political corruption and the appearance thereof. The State has shown no such risk of corruption here, and its interest in a politically neutral workplace is hardly of comparable importance.”
The Court also found that the VCA was not “closely drawn to serve the alleged government interest. The State cannot explain in any coherent manner how a prohibition on payroll deductions will reduce politicization in the workplace. Indeed, the unions argue convincingly that the opposite may actually occur. By removing the arrow of automatic payroll deductions from the unions’ fundraising quiver, the VCA may well force the unions to rely increasingly on repeated, in-person solicitations of its members.”
Utah Education Association v. Shurtleff, 2008 WL 101438 (10th Cir. 2008).
This article appears in the March 2008 issue