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United Public Workers v. Mitchell


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330 U.S. 75 (1947), argued 3 Dec. 1945, reargued 17 Oct. 1946, decided 10 Feb. 1947 by vote of 4 to 3; Reed for the Court, Frankfurter concurring, Rutledge and Douglas concurring in part and dissenting in part, Black in dissent, Murphy and Jackson not participating. The Hatch Act of 1940 forbade officers and employees of the executive branch, with certain exceptions, from “taking any active part in political management or in political campaigning.” Executive-branch employees now came under restrictions concerning political activities as had applied to civil service employees, and violation of those rules required dismissal from their positions. Several members of executive agencies sought a declaratory judgment, claiming that the law unconstitutionally restricted their freedom of speech as protected by the First Amendment.

Justice Stanley Reed pointed out that the Court, in a series of cases going back to Ex parte Curtis (1882), had upheld similar restrictions on civil service employees, and he balanced individual speech rights against Congress's decision that the public interest required that government employees be barred from active political participation. “It is accepted constitutional doctrine that these fundamental human rights are not absolute…. The essential rights of the First Amendment in some instances are subject to the elemental need for order without which the grandeur of civil rights to others would be a mockery” (p. 95).

In his partial dissent, Justice William O. Douglas described the statute as too broadly drawn. He did not deny that Congress could restrict the political activity of government workers, but to do so, said Douglas, it had to fashion a more narrowly drawn law aimed at the specific conduct it deemed a clear and present danger. In his dissent, Justice Hugo Black bitterly attacked the Hatch Act as depriving several million people of their constitutional rights to free speech and political participation.

Melvin I. Urofsky

Subjects: Law.


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