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Free-speech dispute over union fees

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A 1992 state campaign-finance law mandates that the 80,000-member union obtain the consent of some 3,000 nonmember teachers before using a portion of their dues for politics. Union officials say they already obtain that consent by offering nonmembers the option of objecting to the political use of their fees.

But a group of current and former teachers say that's not enough. They say the state law requires prior authorization. If no such prior consent is given, the money is off limits for political purposes and must be refunded, they say.

In contrast, the union's current system relies on implied consent. Twice a year, the WEA mails a packet of information to nonmembers telling them they have a right to object to the use of their fees for politics. If they object, the money is refunded. If they do nothing, forget, or otherwise fail to return a form within the 30-day deadline, the union interprets it as permission to use the money for political purposes.

The state campaign-finance law requires the union to determine consent through an opt-in system, while the union insists that its current opt-out system provides nonmembers with enough protection against political coercion.

The Washington Supreme Court agreed with the union. It declared by a 6-to-3 vote that the state's tougher affirmative consent law violated WEA's right to use union funds for political advocacy without facing government-imposed restraints.

"The union's [opt-out] procedures amount to a constitutionally permissible alternative that adequately protects both the union and dissenters," the Washington Supreme Court declared.

Lawyers for the nonmember teachers argue in their brief to the US Supreme Court that the state high court "repeatedly misapplied and misinterpreted the First Amendment."

The case is about the free-speech rights of nonunion members, not the union itself, says Milton Chappell, a lawyer with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, which is representing a group of nonmember teachers in the case.

He says the union favors the opt-out system because it maximizes political dollars collected by the union. But, he says, it does little to ascertain whether nonmembers truly intend that their fees be used to support the political preferences of a labor organization they refuse to join.

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