In International Brotherhood of Teamsters Union v. Vogt, 354 U.S. 284 (1957), the Supreme Court reaffirmed that First Amendment protections for freedom of expression did not prevent states from limiting peaceful picketing directed to coerce employers to interfere with employees’ rights to choose whether or not to join a union.
State prohibited Teamsters Union from picketing
Union members had picketed outside Vogt, Inc.’s gravel pit in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, which led to reduced business. Vogt requested an injunction to prohibit such picketing.
Court upheld injunction
Justice Felix Frankfurter’s opinion for the Court reviewed a long line of cases in which the Court recognized that picketing could involve “an aspect of communication” protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments but also recognized that rights to free expression might have to be balanced against other considerations. Frankfurter summarized the cases as establishing “a broad field in which a State, in enforcing some public policy, whether of its criminal or its civil law . . . could constitutionally enjoin peaceful picketing aimed at preventing effectuation of that policy.”
Dissenters said the picketing should have been protected
In Justice William O. Douglas’s dissenting opinion, joined by Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justice Hugo L. Black, he argued that the Court had come full circle from its decision in Thornhill v. Alabama (1940) and American Federation of Labor v. Swing (1941). Douglas observed that the case at hand involved “no rioting, no mass picketing, no violence, no disorder, no fisticuffs, no coercion — indeed nothing but speech” and should therefore be protected. He feared that the decision left states “free to decide whether to permit or suppress any particular picket line for any reason other than a blanket policy against all picketing.”
John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.