The Supreme Court in Minnesota Board for Community Colleges v. Knight, 465 U.S.271 (1984), upheld a provision of the Minnesota Public Employment Labor Relations Act that restricted colleges from listening to any but designated faculty representatives at its bargaining sessions. Non-designated faculty members challenged the law because they argued that it restricted their freedom of speech and association, in violation of the First Amendment.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote the majority decision, which overturned a three-judge district court finding that restricting participation in such sessions did not violate the constitutional rights of employees. O’Connor distinguished this decision from the Court’s ruling in City of Madison v. Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (1976), which upheld the right of a teacher to express his views, by limiting its application to public forums. O’Connor also cited Bi-Metallic Investment Co. v. State Board of Equalization (1915), to assert that the government was not obligated to give members of the public a right to be heard before adopting public policy measures. After citing the decision in Smith v. Arkansas State Highway Employees (1979), in which the Court refused to compel a state to consider a grievance that was submitted by a union instead of an individual, O’Connor observed, “It is inherent in a republican form of government that direct public participation in government policymaking is limited.” O’Connor argued that the case was not altered by the fact that it involved an “academic setting.” She wrote that academicians were still free to decide whether or not to join the union that represented them at bargaining sessions. O’Connor also rejected an equal protection argument, concluding that “[w]hatever the wisdom of Minnesota’s statutory scheme for professional employee consultation on employment-related policy, in academic or other settings, the scheme violates no provision of the Constitution.”

In Justice Thurgood Marshall’s concurring opinion, he challenged the majority’s “sweeping assertion that no government official is ever constitutionally obliged, before making a decision on a matter of public policy, to afford interested citizens an opportunity to present their views.” In his dissenting opinion, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. cited principles of academic freedom, arguing that faculty members should not be forced to join a union to get their views heard ,nor should they be excluded altogether from such sessions. Brennan wrote that the regulation at issue violated both freedom of expression and the right to be free from compelled association.

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