The Ohio Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Appellate District recently addressed a dispute between the Portage County Educators Association for Developmental Disabilities-Unit B, OEA/NEA and the Portage County Board of Developmental Disabilities. During a labor dispute, members of the union picketed on sidewalks outside the private residences of six Board members and outside the employer of one Board member. The State Employment Relations Board (SERB) determined that was an unfair labor practice based on language in R.C. 4117.11(B)(7), which makes picketing related to a labor relations dispute at the residence or place of private employment of any public official an unfair labor practice.
The union argued that the statute was an unconstitutional restriction on speech because the picketing in question took place on public sidewalks and streets. Those are quintessential public forums where speech enjoys a great deal of protection.
The court of appeals needed to first determine if the unfair labor practice statute was “content-based” or “content-neutral.” Content-neutral restrictions enjoy intermediate scrutiny and are presumed valid. Content-based restrictions are subject to strict scrutiny review and are presumed invalid. In this case, the court found that the statutory restriction was content-based because it prohibited picketing in certain locations only when that picketing was related to a labor relations dispute.
Given the determination that the statute was a content-based restriction on speech, the presumption of unconstitutionality could only be overcome by a showing that the regulation is (a) necessary to serve a compelling state interest; and (b) narrowly tailored to achieve that interest by the least restrictive means. Ultimately, the court found that SERB failed to show that the statute served a compelling state interest or that it was narrowly tailored. As a result, the court held that the statutory language was unconstitutional, and the union did not commit an unfair labor practice.
What this means for your District?
Picketing outside the homes or places of employment of school board members is permissible in certain counties in Ohio. The Eleventh Appellate District has jurisdiction over Ashtabula, Geauga, Lake, Portage and Trumbull Counties. This decision is binding in those counties. The Eighth Appellate District, which serves Cuyahoga County, previously reached the same conclusion in 1998. At least in those counties, an unfair labor practice will not be found if union members picket on public streets or sidewalks in front of board of education members’ homes or places of employment.
The Seventh Appellate District reached the opposite conclusion in 2016. Given the conflict among these courts, it is not clear throughout Ohio whether it is an unfair labor practice to picket outside the homes or places of employment of public officials. It is possible that this decision will be appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court where a definitive answer can be had. We will certainly update our clients if this case is appealed and decided by the Ohio Supreme Court.