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Public Citizen Files Lawsuit on Behalf of Engineers Union Membership To Protect Free Internet Communication

March 29, 2007

Public Citizen Files Lawsuit on Behalf of Engineers Union Membership To Protect Free Internet Communication

Members Have Free Speech Right to Speak Online Within Unionand With Public

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Public Citizen filed a lawsuit today with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of members of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) alleging that their right to communicate has been infringed upon by the union.

IUOE’s executive board violated its members’ statutory free speech rights by announcing a new rule that would force union members to password-protect personal Web sites containing information about union elections so that they can be viewed only by other members of the union. The union has also maintained an illegal provision in its constitution that states that members will be fined if they sue the union without first exhausting intra-union remedies.

According to the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (LMRDA), all members have the right to speak to each other as well as to the general public about union affairs and elections. The act also defends the right of union members to sue their own union without the threat of discipline.

The IUOE’s membership is widely dispersed across the United States and Canada, making non-Internet communication between members costly and difficult. Many locals are spread over entire states or even several states. Members who want to express their views about matters that affect the entire union cannot effectively do so on their own job sites or through traditional mail.

Open communication through the Internet is vital to union members who do not agree with the direction incumbent officers are taking. Member Web sites also allow union members in other parts of the country to show support for candidates in upcoming elections and keep the public and the press informed about what issues unions may be dealing with.

In addition, creating a Web site that is password-protected involves more technical skill, which may prevent IUOE members from attempting to produce their own sites. Even if the owner’s Internet service provider offers the service, the process can be costly. Moreover, members are less likely to view the Web site if they have to enter data about themselves in order to access it.

“Punishing members who lack the technical know-how or financial ability to comply with this rule, or who want the public at large to know about their campaign, is a direct violation of their right to free speech,” said Paul Levy, a Public Citizen attorney who filed the complaint. “The new rule is an attempt to keep ‘sensitive’ information secret when in fact that ‘sensitive’ data is actually the fact that members disagree with incumbent leaders’ policies and want to change union policy.”

Article XVII, Section 4 of the IUOE constitution requires that members go through internal union remedies before filing a lawsuit and states that members who file suit without doing so “shall be subject to a fine equal to the full amount of the costs incurred in the defense of such action by the union.” The LMRDA forbids unions from limiting members’ access to litigation, and previous courts have struck down union constitutional provisions similar to IUOE’s Article XVII, Section 4.  Because the only opportunity to appeal a decision of the union’s executive board is at the union’s convention next year, long after the new Web site rule goes into effect, pursuing the union’s remedies would allow members to be punished without court protection.

The IUOE’s general counsel has stated that the union plans to enforce its Web site password protection rule even though it violates its members’ free speech. As a result, Public Citizen asks in its complaint to grant injunctions against the Web site rule and Article XVII, Section 4 of the IUOE constitution.

Public Citizen lawyers Levy and Greg Beck filed the complaint, which seeks declaratory and injunctive relief.

To read the complaint, click here.

Public Citizen has a record of defending the free speech rights of Internet users. To learn more, click here.