Imagine that you are a construction worker for a large, nonunion corporation. One day, your boss tells you that for two months leading up to the next national election, you and several other employees will work full time for the Koch brothers’ Super PAC, helping to get out the vote for its preferred candidates. Furthermore, until that time, you are required to spend several hours each weekend participating in that group’s phone banking and door-to-door canvassing efforts. And next week, you will attend a rally the group is hosting to demonstrate working-class support for its candidates. Aghast, you tell your boss that you do not support the Koch brothers or their preferred candidates, and do not wish to participate in any of this. He replies that he understands your view, but that these activities are now requirements of your job, and any employee who refuses to participate will be fired.
Most Americans would likely be appalled to find themselves in this situation. Intuitively, the employer’s actions might strike us as falling well outside the bounds of what may legitimately be required of employees; as an outrageous violation of our individual autonomy and right to control our own speech; and, perhaps, as an extreme and dangerous extension of corporate power in a democracy. Among our first thoughts might be: “This can’t be legal.” Until 2010, that instinct was correct. But after the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC,1 federal law does not protect the employee in the scenario above, nor do the laws of most states. This Note will explain why that is the case, and why Congress can and should act to protect employees from being coerced to participate in their employers’ political activities.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, which held that corporations have a First Amendment right to make independent political expenditures,2 has profoundly impacted campaign finance law and reverberated throughout the political world. The implications of Citizens United’s reasoning for other campaign finance statutes have already been the subject of much scholarly commentary,3 and some judicial opinions.4 At least one scholar has also noted that the decision freed corporations and unions to communicate political messages not only to the public, but also to their employees.5 Yet so far, little attention has been paid to what might be an even more substantial implication for the employer-employee relationship: in the wake of Citizens United, the statutory framework intended to prevent employers from coercing their employees into participating in their political expression no longer effectively serves that purpose.
This Note will explore the impact of Citizens United on political activity in the employment context and will argue that Congress should restore statutory protections. Part I explains how Citizens United has effectively allowed employers to require their employees to participate in their political activities. Part II illustrates some of the ways that employers have begun to use this power, and describes recent Federal Election Commission (FEC) proceedings involving such employers. Part III argues that Congress should address this issue, and offers some considerations to guide the drafting of a potential statute. Part IV explains why such a statute would be consistent with First Amendment doctrine, taking into account the impact of Citizens United.
Before undertaking this analysis, one point of clarification is in order: in discussing “political” activities, this Note refers to electioneering communications and speech that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a candidate.6 Corporations and unions have long been allowed to engage in certain activities related to the political arena. For example, they may seek to influence elected officials regarding public policy issues.7 They may also make expenditures to influence the outcome of ballot initiatives.8 But until Citizens United, 2 U.S.C. § 441b(a) — part of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 19719 (FECA) — barred corporations and unions from making “a contribution or expenditure in connection with any election to any political office.”10 In Citizens United, the Supreme Court struck down the statute’s ban on independent political expenditures,11 though it did not explicitly address the ban on direct contributions by corporations to political candidates or parties.12
I. The Impact of Citizens United on Employer-Employee Relations
Before Citizens United, Congress had established a comprehensive statutory framework regulating corporations’ and unions’ political engagement. One explicit goal of this framework was to protect employees against undue pressure from employers who might seek to coerce them into participating in certain political activities. Yet in ruling that corporations and unions have the right to make independent expenditures, the Supreme Court created a hole in that statutory scheme through which employers may legally require employee participation in their political activities.
Corporations and unions could not require employees to participate in political activities before Citizens United because those entities were barred from such activities by § 441b(a). The statutory restriction was written broadly to encompass not only financial gifts but also “anything of value.”13 Compensated employee time contributed to campaign activities was considered an in-kind direct contribution by the employer, and therefore prohibited.14 If an employee participated in other political messaging by the corporation or union, or by an independent third-party group, such activity would be considered a prohibited independent expenditure if compensated by the employer.15 Even if not compensated, these activities were attributed to the employer if employees were directed by managers to participate.16
Indeed, FECA not only prohibited corporations and unions from dragooning their employees into participation in their political activities, it also restricted their election-related communications with employees. These entities were allowed to communicate with employees regarding policy issues and pending legislation, but were not permitted to “expressly advocate the election or defeat of one or more clearly identified candidate(s) or the candidates of a clearly identified political party,”17 either to their employees specifically or to the general public.18 Thus, by significantly restricting employers’ ability to participate in politics, the statute broadly protected employees from political coercion.
FECA did allow corporations and unions to participate in politics by sponsoring separate segregated funds (SSFs), a type of political action committee (PAC). Through these connected organizations, corporations and unions could (and still can) solicit funds and spend them on campaign contributions and/or independent political expenditures.19 But importantly, the statute included extensive protections designed to prevent corporations from coercing employee contributions. Under § 441b(b)(3)(A), SSFs are broadly prohibited from making a contribution or expenditure “by utilizing money or anything of value secured by . . . job discrimination, financial reprisals,” the threat of the same, or by “moneys required as a condition of membership in a labor organization or as a condition of employment.”20 Moreover, anyone soliciting SSF contributions from an employee must inform her of the fund’s political purposes,21 and of her right to refuse to contribute without reprisal.22 Acting in accordance with these restrictions, a corporation may solicit from its stockholders, executive and administrative personnel, and their families, and a union may solicit from its members and their families (the “restricted class”).23 But if a corporation or union wants to solicit SSF contributions beyond the restricted class, from rank-and-file employees and/or their families, further restrictions apply: such solicitations must be made in writing, are limited to two times per calendar year, must be mailed to the employee’s residence, and must be designed such that the soliciting entity does not know who does or does not make a contribution of fifty dollars or less.24 These statutory features confirm what legislative history lays bare: protecting employees from corporations’ and unions’ attempts to coerce their political activity has long been a specific goal of Congress’s campaign finance legislation.25
In sum, prior to Citizens United, employees were protected from coerced political activity. Corporations and unions could not pressure their employees to participate in making campaign contributions or independent expenditures, since the organizations themselves were barred from those activities. They could not expressly advocate that their employees vote a certain way. Nor could they coerce employee contributions to SSFs; such coercion was explicitly barred by statute, and extensive regulations ensured that any solicitation of employees would be infrequent, at arm’s length, and ensure dissenters’ anonymity.
The legal framework described above, with extensive employee protections built into SSFs as the only vehicle through which corporations and unions could participate in politics, no longer serves its function if those employers can participate directly. And because Congress did not anticipate a world in which corporations and unions could make independent political expenditures, there are no statutory provisions governing the solicitation of employees for such expenditures. Under current law, neither the Constitution nor federal statutes nor the laws of most states prevent employers from requiring their employees to participate in their political activities.
Absent statutory protection, federal law provides no redress for employees who suffer termination or other adverse action as a consequence of their unwillingness to participate in their employers’ political activities. The Constitution itself provides no such protection, as employer-directed terms and conditions of private employment do not constitute state action.26 And in U.S. employment law, employment-at-will remains the default rule.27
Before Citizens United, Congress never had to consider how to protect employees from being coerced to participate in corporate or union political activities that were themselves illegal. But by allowing these entities to make independent political expenditures, the Supreme Court has rendered SSFs (with their considerable restrictions and reporting obligations28) an easily bypassed “statutory artifact,”29 thereby opening a large hole in the legal framework meant to protect employees from coercion. Under current federal law, corporations and unions may compel rank-and-file employees to carry out the entity’s political advocacy just as they may compel employees to carry out other activities for the organization.30 Such political advocacy may include participation in campaign activities for a particular candidate so long as the corporation or union does not coordinate with the campaign,31 a limitation that means relatively little in practice.32 Federal election law does not even bar requiring an employee to participate in uncompensated political activity outside work hours,33 though the employee could seek due compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.34
Furthermore, the laws of most states do not offer the protection that federal law no longer provides. Professor Eugene Volokh has found that approximately half of all Americans live in jurisdictions that provide some level of protection from employer retaliation for private-employee speech or political activity.35 Yet while most or all of the relevant statutes protect an employee’s self-directed, off-work political activity, fewer protect against employer coercion. For example, one common state-level approach prohibits taking action against employees for engaging in political activities.36 Other state employment law statutes prohibit retaliation against employees for engaging in off-duty lawful activities;37 for engaging in “recreational activities”;38 for belonging to, endorsing, or affiliating with a political party;39 or for engaging in electoral activities.40 These and similar statutes prohibit an employer from firing an employee for activities in which she decides to participate, but appear not to protect an employee who declines to participate in political activities directed by her employer. Even the few statutes that are written more broadly may not provide such protection (pending judicial interpretation),41 and may have limited scope even where applicable.42
In declaring that corporations and unions must be allowed to make independent political expenditures, Citizens United has enabled these employers to bypass the SSF framework that had purposefully and effectively barred political coercion in the workplace. As a result, corporations and unions may now require employees to participate in a wide range of political activities, unhindered by the Constitution or by federal or state statutes. Of course, most employers are unlikely to utilize their workforces in this way. But some will and indeed already have, particularly unions and those corporations that are significantly impacted by government regulation. After Citizens United, their employees are no longer protected.
II. A Glimpse of What’s Ahead? Workplace Coercion in Recent Elections
Some corporations and unions have already begun to take advantage of their newfound right to communicate political messages to their employees and, through those employees, to the general public. In some cases employees have been required to attend political events or participate in campaign activities without pay. These examples, and the inability of the FEC to sanction the employers responsible, illustrate just how flimsy employee protections have become in the post–Citizens United legal regime.
Political advocacy within the employment relationship has taken a variety of forms. At some companies, executives have sent letters to employees urging them to support certain political candidates, and even warning that their jobs will be in jeopardy if those candidates do not prevail.43 Some employers have held captive audience workplace meetings to compel employees to listen to their political views, a tactic that Professor Paul Secunda argues may now be legal after Citizens United.44 During the 2012 campaign, on a conference call hosted by a conservative small business group, Mitt Romney urged participating business owners to “make it very clear to your employees what you believe is in the best interest of your enterprise and therefore their job and their future in the upcoming elections,” noting specifically that there was “[n]othing illegal” about sharing such opinions.45 The U.S. Chamber of Commerce encouraged businesses to include political advertisements in their employees’ payroll envelopes.46 A national PAC with ties to more than one hundred prominent American employers now specializes in helping companies communicate political messages to their employees.47
Some employers have gone beyond merely expressing their own views and have sought to compel their employees to participate actively in political activities in support of their preferred candidates. One widely reported example involved Murray Energy, a coal mining firm whose CEO has also been accused of coercing employees to give money to Republican candidates.48 In August 2012, Mitt Romney spoke at an Ohio campaign rally in front of one of Murray Energy’s mines. Rows of miners were featured behind him on stage, with many more present in the audience; footage from the rally was later used in Romney campaign commercials.49 Several Murray Energy employees alleged that the company, which shut down the mine for the day citing safety concerns, had forced them to attend the rally.50 While the company acknowledged that workers were forced to give up a day’s pay due to the event,51 its CFO confusingly claimed that “attendance at the Romney event was mandatory, but no one was forced to attend.”52 Local advocacy group ProgressOhio filed a complaint with the FEC, alleging that the miners’ required attendance constituted a prohibited corporate contribution from Murray Energy to the Romney campaign and that it violated Commission regulations.53 The FEC has not yet ruled on the matter, but took no action in a similar case that involved the same regulation.54
One week after the rally at the Murray Energy mine, the FEC ruled on a complaint filed against the United Public Workers, AFSCME Local 646, AFL-CIO (UPW). According to undisputed facts established in the enforcement proceedings, UPW held a mandatory employee meeting in April 2010 at which managers told UPW employees they were “expected” to participate in the union’s activities in support of Democratic congressional candidate Colleen Hanabusa.55 These activities included sign waving, phone banking, and canvassing, all conducted outside work hours; employees were not paid for participating, nor did the union argue that these activities were part of any employee’s normal duties.56 Georgette Yaindl, a former UPW employee, alleged that she and a colleague were terminated without justification after they declined to participate in some of these activities.57 While UPW denied that employee participation in campaign activities was “a condition of continued employment,” it did not deny any of Yaindl’s factual allegations or provide any other reason for terminating the two employees.58 The union instead argued that its actions did not constitute coercion and that, in any case, after Citizens United it was not prohibited from compelling employee participation in its independent political activity.59
The FEC ruled unanimously that UPW had failed to report independent expenditures in support of a federal candidate, but the Commissioners split 3–3 on the question of whether UPW’s actions violated § 441b(a).60 The three Republican Commissioners accepted that the union’s actions amounted to coercion, but found that “UPW’s independent use of its paid workforce to campaign for a federal candidate post–Citizen’s [sic] United was not contemplated by Congress and, consequently, is not prohibited by either the Act or Commission regulations.”61 Because UPW had not coordinated its activities through an SSF, regulations pertaining to such funds were inapposite.62 The Commissioners found the FEC’s remaining anticoercion regulation inapplicable as well, because its language bars coercion only “to urge any individual to make a contribution or engage in fundraising activities on behalf of a candidate or political committee,”63 and the FEC unanimously found no evidence that UPW had coerced employees to make financial contributions in this case.64
The three Democratic Commissioners found that UPW had violated § 441b(a).65 Although the Commissioners conceded that “UPW appears to have engaged in independent speech,” they read the language of the regulation on coerced contributions sufficiently broadly to encompass the union’s conduct.66 Citing “the congressional objective to ensure that contributions from corporate and union employees, who wish to aid their employers’ political activities, are truly voluntary,”67 the Commissioners argued that the Citizens United Court did not intend to diminish employees’ rights to be free from the workplace coercion that Congress had repeatedly sought to prohibit.68
While popular commentary regarding the split FEC decision tended toward outrage at the Republican Commissioners who blocked the FEC from acting against UPW,69 the most troubling aspect of the case may be the weak legal basis for the Democratic Commissioners’ arguments. While it is certainly correct that Congress intended to protect employees from workplace coercion, that congressional intent is embodied in the regulations governing SSFs. Where a corporation or union itself makes an independent expenditure, those regulations are inapposite, and no applicable statutory provision bars workplace coercion.70 Thus, in overturning the ban on independent political expenditures by corporations and unions, Citizens United in effect decimated the protections from coerced political speech that employees once enjoyed.
III. Congress Should Act to Protect Employees from Political Coercion
Having acted consistently for decades to protect employees from being coerced to participate in employers’ political activity, Congress must act again to restore such protection after Citizens United. A federal statute with this objective would safeguard important public and employee interests, and could be designed simultaneously to protect employers’ legitimate interest in participating in robust public discourse.
Guarding against political coercion of employees serves important societal interests in both individual autonomy and robust public discourse. Moreover, this form of workplace protection is particularly justified because employees have an especially strong interest in avoiding coerced participation, whereas an employer’s legitimate associational interest in such coercion is limited.
Perhaps the most obvious interest served by such protection is the employee’s interest in being an autonomous political actor, able to engage in (or choose not to engage in) the public sphere without fear of jeopardizing her livelihood. The specter of a job loss or other adverse employment consequence presents an incredibly potent threat to an individual’s free expression,71 as the Supreme Court has recognized.72 Indeed, the Framers recognized the enormous power held by one who controls the livelihood of another; as Alexander Hamilton wrote, “[I]n the main it will be found that a power over a man’s support is a power over his will.”73
Of course, the argument for employee autonomy has its limits, as discussed in section III.B, but many of those concerns do not apply to restrictions on what political activity employers may require. For example, in some cases employers may have a legitimate interest in terminating workers who speak out directly against the employers’ business interests,74 or whose expression is alienating to coworkers or customers.75 These concerns are especially legitimate with regard to high-ranking officers whose views are likely to be seen as reflecting those of the employer, though in some cases expression by lower-level employees may create similar pressure.76 These are complicated associational-rights questions with which states seeking to protect employee speech have wrestled.77 But protecting employees against directives to engage actively in certain political activity is a more modest project, with fewer risks to legitimate employer interests.
The government also has an interest in ensuring the basic health of American democracy, and “that competition among actors in the political arena is truly competition among ideas.”78 Thus, for example, using the power of the economic marketplace to coerce someone to vote a certain way is already prohibited.79 And ironically, the United States regularly condemns workplace political coercion as antidemocratic when it occurs abroad. For example, the Bush Administration criticized Armenian elections after observers found that “factory workers . . . were instructed to attend the incumbent’s rallies,”80 which is not unlike what Murray Energy employees were required to do. As a D.C. District Court judge observed recently in upholding SSF solicitation restrictions post–Citizens United, safeguarding the speech rights of employees as well as employers is “vitally important to the health of American democracy,” which Congress may act to protect.81
Indeed, the Supreme Court has consistently emphasized the importance of “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” debate on public issues.82 Allowing corporations and unions to conscript their employees into participation in their speech would not only warp that debate via the leveraging of tremendous coercive power, it would have several other harmful effects as well. For one, this distortion could be especially pernicious because, as in the Murray Energy example, those subject to the messaging might not know who is really behind the speech.83 Employer pressure to participate in such activities would likely also lead workers to suppress their own political views.84 Not only would such self-censorship further distort the political discourse, but losing workers’ views would also deprive the marketplace of ideas of an important voice, which is itself a harm, especially (though not exclusively) when an employee’s workplace experience is relevant to an area of policy.85
Any federal statute addressing these concerns must be broad enough to protect employees but not so broad as to infringe upon employers’ legitimate and constitutionally protected interests. For example, a per se rule against corporations or unions conducting political activities through employees could effectively prevent those entities from speaking at all, which would be unconstitutional under Citizens United. But a well-designed statute can properly protect employees while still ensuring that corporations and unions have an effective opportunity to exercise their rights and pursue their interests.
One way for Congress to reestablish employee protections would be simply to extend the solicitation restrictions of § 441b(b)(3), which currently apply to SSFs, to corporations and unions. Removing or editing the statute’s references to a “fund” yields the following language:
(3) It shall be unlawful —
(A) for [a union or corporation] to make a contribution or expenditure by utilizing money or anything of value secured by physical force, job discrimination, financial reprisals, or the threat of force, job discrimination, or financial reprisal; or by dues, fees, or other moneys required as a condition of membership in a labor organization or as a condition of employment . . . ;
(B) for any person soliciting an employee for a contribution [or expenditure] . . . to fail to inform such employee of [its] political purposes . . . at the time of such solicitation; and
(C) for any person soliciting an employee for a contribution [or expenditure] . . . to fail to inform such employee, at the time of such solicitation, of his right to refuse to so contribute without any reprisal.86
This simple statutory change would effectively protect workers, because “contribution or expenditure” is defined to include not only financial contributions but also “services” and “anything of value.”87 Although § 441b is a criminal statute, the protections envisioned here would be enforceable by a civil cause of action,88 similar to other employment discrimination protections, and would likely be evaluated under a familiar burden-shifting framework.89
To ensure that corporations’ and unions’ protected rights are not infringed, some employees and some employers would likely need to be exempted. Most importantly, Congress should exempt those employees for whom employer-directed political activity is a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ). Such an exemption would allow employers to direct the political activity of lobbyists and other employees hired to facilitate the entity’s political activity.90 Additionally, executives should be exempted (as they are from SSF solicitation rules as part of the “restricted class”), since they may frequently be called upon to speak for the entity on a range of public issues. These reasonable exemptions would ensure corporations and unions an effective opportunity to exercise the speech rights recognized in Citizens United, without allowing them to direct every employee’s political activity.
Some categories of employers should also be exempted. Small employers are already exempt from many employment discrimination statutes91 and the same should apply here, given their stronger associational interests and the fact that they may not be able to hire someone specifically to carry out their political advocacy. Additionally, nonprofit advocacy corporations that are designed to amplify an ideological viewpoint should be exempt, given their particularly strong organizational speech interests.92
With these statutory protections in place, employees’ interest in political autonomy and the public interest in robust democratic discourse would be appropriately protected without unduly burdening employers’ right to participate in that discourse. This Note now turns to evaluating the constitutionality of such a statute under the First Amendment.
IV. These Statutory Protections Would Likely Survive a Constitutional Challenge
The proposed statutory protections do not violate employers’ rights. Under current doctrine, courts would likely evaluate the statute as a regulation of conduct not subject to any special First Amendment scrutiny. However, even if a court were to construe the statute as a content-neutral speech restriction and impose intermediate scrutiny, the Supreme Court’s compelled-speech jurisprudence shows that the state’s interest in protecting employees from political coercion would be entitled to significant weight. While Citizens United has expanded employers’ political speech rights, neither its holding nor its rationale would place the constitutionality of the proposed statute in jeopardy.
The proposed statutory protections would constitute a restriction on employers’ conduct, not a speech restriction subject to special First Amendment scrutiny.93 Employers would still be free to communicate political messages to their employees and even to encourage them to participate in political activities; employers would be barred, however, from coercing employees to do so or taking adverse employment action against employees who refused. Thus, the statute does not regulate any “inherently expressive” conduct protected by the First Amendment;94 rather, it regulates only “potentially expressive activities” which, when they “produce special harms distinct from their communicative impact, . . . are entitled to no constitutional protection.”95
Of course, any restriction on the ability to hire and fire could theoretically impinge on an employer’s First Amendment rights, yet Congress’s authority to set minimum employment standards is nonetheless well established.96 Indeed, the Supreme Court has consistently evaluated and upheld employment law protections as conduct regulations, including some that are arguably more speech-restrictive than the statute proposed here. For example, the Court has repeatedly declared that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 196497 constitutes a permissible regulation of conduct98 in spite of some scholars’ arguments that it restricts too much workplace speech.99 The National Labor Relations Act100 (NLRA) provides an even more apt example: the NLRA directly restricts employer-to-employee communications regarding unionization insofar as they may not contain a “threat of reprisal or force or promise of benefit.”101 The Court has consistently upheld these restrictions on employers’ workplace speech without imposing heightened scrutiny.102
Even if the Court were to depart from this approach, the fact that the statute is content neutral means that, at most, it would be subject to intermediate scrutiny.103 The proposed statute easily meets that standard; indeed, in a post–Citizens United case challenging SSF solicitation restrictions, the D.C. District Court declared that even strict scrutiny would be satisfied if it applied.104 To understand why, it is important to consider how the Supreme Court’s compelled-speech jurisprudence is relevant to this context.
The Supreme Court has long recognized that the scope of speakers’ First Amendment rights may be limited, in some circumstances, by others’ right to decide not to participate in their speech.105 In early compelled-speech cases involving the NLRA, the Court declared that employers have a constitutional right to attempt to persuade employees, but that “the limit of the right has been passed” when an element of coercion is present.106 Indeed, the scope of a speaker’s First Amendment rights falls far short of the ability to coerce others to participate. Speakers also are not constitutionally protected in communicating an objectionable message to a captive audience,107 nor in communicating any message to an unwilling recipient.108
Within the employment context, the Court has developed an extensive compelled-speech doctrine regarding the collection and use of union member dues. Where the law conditions employment on payment of dues, the use of such dues for political purposes raises constitutional questions “of the utmost gravity.”109 Even where dues are required pursuant to a private contractual relationship between union and employer, the Court has held that the same analysis applies.110 Thus, the Court has interpreted labor statutes to require payment of dues to support only the union’s collective bargaining activities,111 and has required unions to return to dissenting members any portion of their dues used for political activities.112 The Court recently went a step further in Knox v. SEIU, Local 1000,113 holding that at least in some circumstances, these opt-out arrangements are insufficient to protect employees’ rights, and an affirmative opt-in is required.114
Furthermore, case law suggests that compelled participation in political speech — for example, compelling workers to attend a campaign rally — raises greater constitutional concerns than does compulsion to provide funds. Specifically, the Court has distinguished between compelled speech and compelled subsidization of speech,115 in line with its longstanding view that financial contributions implicate First Amendment values but may be a step removed from speech itself.116 Compelled participation in acts of speech therefore not only constitutes a greater First Amendment burden,117 but also creates a greater risk of the employer’s speech being mistaken for the speech of the person subject to compulsion.118
The constitutional values that have informed judicial construction of labor statutes in the Court’s compelled-speech cases would likely also inform judicial review of a statute protecting employees against political coercion. While the employer/employee relationship differs from the union/member relationship in many respects, it does not differ here with respect to the crucial question of coercion: when an employee is required to contribute to political activity as a condition of employment, she is certainly no less coerced when the requirement is imposed by her employer and not her union representative.
This background makes apparent how unlikely it is that the Court, having upheld all manner of content-neutral regulations of conduct in the employment context, would find the proposed statute to be an impermissible regulation of employers’ speech. Precedent establishes that First Amendment interests are implicated by coerced participation in political activities, and the Court has taken into account employees’ economic dependence in assessing the scope of employers’ expression rights.119 Moreover, the union-dues decisions emphasize that dissenters should not be required to change jobs in order to avoid being compelled to fund political speech to which they object.120 As the Sixth Circuit has recognized, “a state has a compelling interest in insuring that corporate employees and union members are aware of their right to refrain from contributing to political causes they do not support.”121 The Supreme Court’s compelled-speech cases show that the state also has a compelling interest in ensuring that employees have such a right to refrain.
The analysis thus far has endeavored to show that, under current Supreme Court doctrine, the proposed statutory employee protections do not violate the First Amendment. Because this precise issue has not yet been litigated, however, it is worthwhile also to consider in greater depth the Citizens United decision that set the issue in motion. Upon examination, neither the holding nor the reasoning in Citizens United suggests that the Court would be likely to strike down the statutory protections this Note proposes.
Most importantly, the Court’s holding in Citizens United does not cast doubt on the constitutionality of employee protections, nor did any opinion in the case address that question. Citizens United involved independent political expenditures by a nonprofit advocacy corporation,122 a type of entity unlikely to have employees who refuse to commit to its political mission (and which would be exempted from the proposed statute, in any event). While the Court’s decision opened the door to employee coercion, there is no indication that any of the Justices anticipated this impact. We are left, therefore, to speculate as to the impact its reasoning may have on the relevant doctrines.
The aspect of Citizens United most relevant to employee statutory protections is the Court’s rejection of the argument that the ban on corporations’ independent political expenditures was justified by the interest in protecting dissenting shareholders. The Court, which had previously upheld other campaign finance laws partly on this basis,123 found the interest insufficient to justify such a ban.124 In theory, a Court that has become less concerned about protecting dissenting shareholders might also be less concerned about protecting dissenting employees, even if Knox strongly suggests otherwise.
The reasoning underlying the Court’s rejection of the shareholder-protection rationale in Citizens United, however, does not apply to compelled employee speech. The Court recognized three justifications for rejecting that rationale, none of which would apply to the statute proposed here. First, the Court found that “[t]his asserted interest . . . would allow the Government to ban the political speech even of media corporations.”125 By contrast, the proposed statute does not ban anyone’s speech, and employees of media corporations may qualify for a BFOQ exemption on the same terms as those of other corporations.126 Second, the Court suggested that statutory protection was unnecessary because shareholders could correct any abuses “through the procedures of corporate democracy.”127 But American employees have access to none of those potentially abuse-curbing procedures.128 Third, the Court found that the statute was both underinclusive (because it banned corporate speech only in certain media and at certain times) and overinclusive (because it covered “all corporations, including nonprofit corporations and for-profit corporations with only single shareholders”).129 Again, the proposed statute suffers from neither of these purported defects. It would likely qualify, therefore, as one of the “other regulatory mechanisms” that the Court suggested might permissibly remedy the concern about dissenters.130
More broadly, Citizens United relied on a conception of the nature and value of corporate speech rights that would not likely support coercion of employee speech. The Citizens United majority viewed corporations as essentially “associations of citizens”131 who, like “[a]ll speakers, . . . use money amassed from the economic marketplace to fund their speech.”132 Therefore, restricting their speech on the basis of their corporate identity constituted suspect discrimination against a disfavored category of speakers.133 This notion of corporations as indistinguishable from other speakers sits at best uneasily with the prospect of management having full authority to deploy employees’ time toward whatever activities it sees fit.134 Indeed, if corporations may use not only resources gained in the economic marketplace (as all speakers may do) but also the full force of their employment power, they would arguably be privileged as speakers.135 Ultimately, then, Citizens United appears to stand for the proposition that the government may not place special burdens on corporations (or, presumably, unions) that it does not place on similarly situated speakers. But where the government regulates the speech of employers as employers, the same concern does not apply.
Beyond this argument against speaker-based discrimination, the Citizens United Court emphasized the value of corporate speech in contributing to the public’s access to information and enriching the public discourse.136 This marketplace-of-ideas justification for corporate speech, long a feature of Supreme Court jurisprudence,137 surely requires that corporations have an effective opportunity to exercise their speech rights. But it cannot justify broad coercion of employees, which may actually harm this societal interest by obscuring the identity of speakers and effectively suppressing employees’ own speech.138
Thus, in light of the Court’s historic jurisprudence on employment regulation and compelled speech, a well-drafted statute prohibiting political coercion by employers should survive First Amendment review. While Citizens United has broadened the scope of corporations’ ability to participate in politics, neither its holding nor its rationale would threaten the constitutionality of such statutory protections.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United has significantly altered not only the nation’s political landscape but also, at least for now, the level of political autonomy that employees have a right to expect in their workplace. In allowing corporations and unions to engage in independent political expenditures, the Court has effectively permitted them to bypass the regulatory regime that Congress created to protect employees from workplace political coercion. Congress should renew such protections, while still ensuring employers an effective opportunity to exercise the rights guaranteed by Citizens United. Such a statute would likely pass First Amendment review as a content-neutral regulation of conduct, particularly in light of the Court’s compelled-speech jurisprudence. Before more employers engage in such coercion, before more employees are forced to face a choice between losing their jobs or participating in political speech with which they disagree, Congress can and should act now.