Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. v. Florida Gulf Coast Building & Constr. Trades Council

485 U. S. 568

April 20, 1988

Unions distributed leaflets urging customers to boycott an entire mall, because just one business there had hired just one construction company which allegedly was mean to unions. A labor board found that this union activity broke a law, even though that law arguably violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. A Court of Appeals disagreed with the labor board’s interpretation of the law, and held that the law did not actually ban peaceful leafletting, so the union was in the clear.

Unanimously, the Supreme Court backed up the Court of Appeals (Kennedy did not participate, and Scalia and O’Connor concurred in judgment without opinion). While the labor board’s interpretation would normally get Chevron deference, there was an exception when an agency’s interpretation might violate the Constitution. In those cases, courts could look for and adopt a narrower reading. White said that the law was written to stop practices that might “threaten, coerce, or restrain” potential consumers. Because peaceful leafletting, unaccompanied by picketing, arguably did not do this, White adopted the narrower interpretation of the law.

Legislative history was similarly murky on the law’s reach, and a much analyzed colloquy between Senators Kennedy and Goldwater failed to yield a definite answer either. White also pointed out that under the labor board’s interpretation, even a private meeting which urged a boycott would be considered illegal. I would have liked to have at least read a dissent, but this ruling doesn’t bother me too much. The underlying facts of the case however, are just more proof that American unions are frequently unhinged and totally irrational.

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