Letter Carriers v. Austin
418 U.S. 264 (1974)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Letter Carriers v. Austin, 418 U.S. 264 (1974)

Old Dominion Branch No. 496, National Association

of Letter Carriers, AFL-CIO v. Austin

No. 72-1180

Argued November 14, 1973

Decided June 25, 1974

418 U.S. 264

Syllabus

As part of its ongoing efforts to organize the remainder of letter carriers, appellant union, the carriers' collective bargaining representative in Richmond, Virginia, published a "List of Scabs" in its newsletter, including the names of appellees, together with a pejorative definition of "scab" using words like "traitor." Appellees brought libel actions. Though recognizing that the case involved the publications of a labor union that were relevant to the union's organizational campaign, the trial court overruled appellants' motions to dismiss based on the ground that the publication had First Amendment and federal labor law protection. The court interpreted Linn v. Plant Guard Workers,383 U. S. 53, to permit application of state libel laws as long as the challenged statements were made with "actual malice," defined as being

"actuated by some sinister or corrupt motive such as hatred, personal spite, ill will, or desire to injure the plaintiff . . . or . . . with such gross indifference and recklessness as to amount to a wanton or willful disregard of the rights of the plaintiff."

The jury awarded appellees damages, and the State Supreme Court affirmed.

Held:

1. Although Linn v. Plant Guard Workers, supra, held that federal labor law does not completely preempt the application of state laws to libels published during labor disputes, that decision recognized that federal law does preempt state law to the extent that the State seeks to make actionable defamatory statements in labor disputes published without knowledge of their falsity or reckless disregard of the truth. Pp. 418 U. S. 270-273.

2. Federal labor laws favor uninhibited, robust, and wide-open debate in labor disputes. Pp. 418 U. S. 273-279.

(a) The relevant law here is Executive Order No. 11491, governing labor relations in federal employment. The basic provisions of the Executive Order are like those of the National Labor Relations Act, and similarly afford wide latitude for union freedom

Page 418 U. S. 265

of speech. The partial preemption of Linn is thus equally applicable here. Pp. 418 U. S. 273-279.

(b) The free speech protections afforded union organizing efforts extend to post-recognition organizing activity to the same degree as to pre-recognition activity. P. 418 U. S. 279.

3. The trial court's instruction defining malice in common law terms was erroneous and reflected a misunderstanding of Linn, which adopted the "reckless or knowing falsehood" test of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan,376 U. S. 254. Pp. 418 U. S. 280-282.

4. The state libel award arising out of the publication of the union newsletter here did not comport with the protection for freedom of speech in labor disputes recognized in Linn. The use of the epithet "scab," which was literally and factually true, and is common parlance in labor disputes, was protected under federal law. Publication of the pejorative definition was likewise not actionable, since the use of words like "traitor" cannot be construed as representations of fact and their use in a figurative sense to manifest the union's strong disagreement with the views of workers opposing unionization is also protected by federal law. Cf. Greenbelt Cooperative Publishing Assn. v. Bresler,398 U. S. 6. Pp. 418 U. S. 282-287.

213 Va. 377, 192 S.E.2d 737, reversed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. DOUGLAS, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, post, p. 418 U. S. 287. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 418 U. S. 291.

Page 418 U. S. 266

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