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Anti-indoctrination, anti-free speech?

Some ideas are just awfully hard to legislate. Consider the case of Washington Senate Bill 5446, the Worker Privacy Act, which as it turns out is one of the hottest pieces of legislation in the Northwest this year.

Here is how Rick Bender of the Washington State Labor Council set it up at a Senate Labor Commerce & Consumer Protection Committee hearing on it today: currently, employers can require employees to go to meetings or listen to harangues or get into discussions about such things as politics and religion and what charities they will give to, or not. Bender: “When an employer can force you to listen to or participate in non-job performance related speech, on pain of discharge, discipline or threat, this reality creates a powerful and illegitimate form of compulsion. What worker can afford to risk losing their job? . . . So instead, workers are forced to forego their first amendment rights, and forced to listen to speech on matters of individual conscience.”

Another witness: “Under current law, employers can and do hold mandatory meetings in which they make it clear that certain ways of voting are preferrred or better. This is not about the freedom of an employer to make his or her political beliefs known. It’s about requiring an employee to listen to that political belief.” (There have been plenty of reports of this sort of thing happening; a Wall Street Journal article has outlined numerous cases at Wal-Mart.)

So, SB5446, which generally makes that kind of thing – discussions on matters like that, as opposed to discussions that relate to the work or workplace – illegal. There seems to be some logic to the point. But getting it to practical legislation is a difficult matter.

Senator Janea Holmqust, R-Moses Lake, noted that the language of the bill refers to “communications” – very broad, prospectively raising questions about even casual hallway conversations.

Advocates at first said that prayers opening or closing a mandated meeting would be allowed; later, they seemed to indicate that if anyone found it objectionable, it might not be. What about mandatory training on diversity issues, which tend to bring up political, social and religious questions – would that run afoul?

Kris Teft of the Association of Washington Business argued that it was so broad in its implications that it surpasses one killed last year by the U.S. Supreme Court (Chamber of Commerce v. Brown). Others too argued that it would set precedent – this is uncharted territory. Another said flatly “this bill will not likely support a legal challenge.” (There was also a more generic “this would be seen as anti-business” kind of approach.) There were questions about whether federal law pre-empts some of this one. And in federal law, there are specific provisions (though they cannot include threats or coercion) about employer rights to free speech. (Advocates argue that it isn’t pre-empted by the feds, and that Brown was a different matter.)

You get the impression more work is needed here.

The hearing (even though the first hour or so is devoted to other bills of lesser interest) is well worth the listen.

Legislating is more complex than most people think. There’s a reason it tends to take a while.

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