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Justices Decline Teachers' Union Appeal on Strike Rhetoric

The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to hear the appeal of the Boston Teachers Union over a state court injunction requiring union leaders to disavow the union's call for a vote on a one-day strike.

The BTU argued in court papers that actions by the Boston school system, the Massachusetts Commonwealth Employment Relations Board, and state courts violated its First Amendment free speech rights. At issue was a motion by the union's executive board to put before its membership "for discussion, consideration, and debate" a one-day strike on Feb. 15, 2007.

The Boston School Committee asked the state employment commission to investigate whether the union's rhetoric violated a state law barring strikes by public employee unions. Both the commission and a state court required the union to disavow the strike talk. The commission ruled that the union's rhetoric started in motion a move toward an illegal strike. A state trial court issued an injunction calling for union leaders to disavow the strike talk and assessing $30,000 per day fines for failure to comply. The union never held a general meeting to authorize a strike, and no one-day strike occurred.

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the BTU said that just because it is lawful for states to prohibit strikes by public employees, that does not mean labor regulators have "carte blanche" to restrict a union's free speech rights to prevent a strike from occurring.

"Restraining a union's leadership from expressing frustration with the progress of contract negotiations to its own members is a direct assault on the First Amendment," said the union's brief.

The justices declined without comment to hear the union's appeal in Boston Teachers Union, Local 66 v. Commonwealth Employment Relations Board (Case No. 09-770).

Separately today, the court granted review in a case that has been watched in education circles, particularly among contractors of the U.S. Department of Education.

The justices accepted an appeal from NASA over a government-wide policy of requiring extensive background checks for employees working for government contractors. In a challenge brought by contractors at the space agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled last June that challengers were likely to succeed on their claims that the background checks violated their constitutional right to "informational privacy."

The Obama administration's appeal in National Aeronautics and Space Administration v. Nelson (No. 09-530) will be argued during the court's next term.

Education Week has reported here and here about concerns about the background checks among Education Department contractors.

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