A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit Monday against Gov. Nikki Haley and one of her Cabinet members over anti-union statements they made, saying the remarks were protected as free speech.
The decision went against the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers and another organization. Earlier this year, they sued Haley and Catherine Templeton, director of the S.C. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, over the statements.
The machinists union, along with the S.C. American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, were seeking a court order to force the two Republican officials to remain neutral in organized labor matters. The lawsuit alleged that Haley and Templeton were out to use Labor Department regulatory powers to intimidate and suppress union-organizing efforts in South Carolina.
Attorneys for Haley and Templeton sought to have the case tossed out, arguing that the officials were expressing their rights to free speech on an important policy issue for the state.
Senior U.S. District Court Judge Weston Houck said in his 32-page dismissal that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that Haley and Templeton followed up on their remarks with "coercion, intimidation, or imminent threat of adverse public action."
"This standard is necessarily rigorous to protect the First Amendment rights of public officials, and the plaintiffs' allegations fall short of its requirements," Houck said.
Most of the statements in question were made in late 2010 and earlier this year.
Haley specifically cited the union-fighting skills Templeton developed as a Charleston labor attorney when the then-governor-elect nominated her to run the state's labor and licensing agency in December. Haley said that her expertise would be helpful in the state's efforts to combat unions, particularly at the new Boeing Co.'s new 787 aircraft plant in North Charleston.
"We're going to fight the unions and I needed a partner to help me do it," Haley said at a Dec. 8 news conference.
Templeton was then quoted as saying in January: "Let me be very clear ... this is an anti-union administration. We don't want Boeing or anybody else to introduce extra bureaucracy into the administration."
Houck said he found most of the remarks to be "broad, general, political pronouncements."
The judge also noted that while the plaintiffs revised their lawsuit three times in less than four months, they could not point to "a single act of adverse regulation against a union or worker."
The judge said the plaintiffs should "rest assured" that if Haley and Templeton "actually infringe on their rights through imminent threats or retaliatory action, the federal courts stand ready to grant relief."
Frank Larkin, a spokesman for the machinists union, said an appeal is being considered.
"We're still very concerned that the governor's personal opinion could color official actions in the days and months to come," Larkin said.
Haley's press secretary, Rob Godfrey, issued a statement Monday.
"What the governor has said from day one is that she's going to speak out when she sees unions bullying great corporate citizens or coming between our businesses and workers, and today's ruling reaffirms her freedom to do just that," he said.