COPPAGE V. KANSAS, 236 U. S. 1 (1915)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Coppage v. Kansas, 236 U.S. 1 (1915)

Coppage v. Kansas

No. 48

Submitted October 30, 1914

Decided January 25, 1915

236 U.S. 1


The Kansas statute declaring it a misdemeanor punishable by fine or imprisonment for an employer to require all employee to agree not to become or remain a member of any labor organization during the time of the employment, so far as it applies to such a case as the present, where an employee at will, a man of full age and understanding, was merely required to freely choose whether he would give up his position of employment or would agree to refrain from association with the union while so employed, the case being free from any element of coercion or undue influence, held repugnant to the "due process" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Adair v. United States, 208 U. S. 11, followed to the effect that it is the constitutional right of an employer to dispense with the services of an employee because of his membership in a labor union, just as it is the constitutional right of an employee to quit the service of an employer who employs nonunion men.

Under constitutional freedom of contract, whatever either party has the right to treat as sufficient ground for terminating the employment where there is no stipulation on the subject he has the right to provide against by insisting that a stipulation respecting it shall be a sine qua non of the inception of the employment, or of its continuance if terminable at will.

Page 236 U. S. 2

Included in the right of personal liberty and the right of private property, partaking of the nature of each. is the right to make contracts for the acquisition of property, chief among which is that of personal employment by which labor and other services are exchanged for money or other forms of property.

A state cannot, by designating as "coercion" conduct which is not such in truth, render criminal any normal and essentially innocent exercise of personal liberty, for to permit this would deprive the Fourteenth Amendment of its effective force in this respect.

When a party appeals to this Court for the protection of rights secured to him by the federal Constitution, the decision is not to depend upon the form of the state law, nor even upon its declared purpose, but rather upon its operation and effect as applied and enforced by the state, and upon these matters this Court cannot, in the proper performance of its duty, yield its judgment to that of the state court.

A statutory provision which is not a legitimate police regulation cannot be made such by being placed in the same act with a police regulation, or by being enacted under a title that declares a purpose which would be a proper object for the exercise of that power.

It being self-evident that, unless all things are held in common, some persons must have more property than others, it is from the nature of things impossible to uphold freedom of contract and the right of private property without at the same time recognizing as legitimate those inequalities of fortune that are the necessary result of the exercise of those rights.

The Fourteenth Amendment recognizes "liberty" and "property" as coexistent human rights, and debars the states from any unwarranted interference with either.

Since a state may not strike down the rights of liberty or property directly, it may not do so indirectly, as by declaring in effect that the public good requires the removal of those inequalities that are but the normal and inevitable result of the exercise of those rights, and then invoking the police power in order to remove the inequalities, without other object in view.

The Fourteenth Amendment debars the states from striking down personal liberty or property rights or materially restricting their normal exercise excepting so far as may be incidentally necessary for the accomplishment of some other and paramount object, and one that concerns the public welfare. The mere restriction of liberty or of property rights cannot, of itself, be denominated "public welfare" and treated as a legitimate object of the police power, for such restriction is the very thing that is inhibited by the Amendment.

Page 236 U. S. 3

Without intimating anything inconsistent with the right of individuals to join labor unions, or questioning the legitimacy of such organizations so long as they conform to the laws of the land, as others are required to do, held that the individual has no inherent right to join a labor union and still remain in the employ of one who is unwilling to employ a union man any more than the same individual has a right to join the union without the consent of that organization.

There may not be one rule of liberty for the labor organization or it members and a different and more restrictive rule for employers.

The employee's liberty of making contracts does not include a liberty to procure employment from an unwilling employer or without a fair understanding. Nor may the employer be foreclosed by legislation from exercising the same freedom of choice that is accorded to the employee.

To ask a man to agree in advance to refrain from affiliation with the union while retaining a certain position of employment is not to ask him to give up any part of his constitutional freedom. He is free to decline the employment on those terms, just as the employer may decline to offer employment on any other, and, having accepted employment on those terms, the employee is still free to join the union when the period of employment expires, or, if employed at will, then at any time upon simply quitting the employment, and if bound by his own agreement to refrain from joining during a stated period of employment, he is in no different situation from that which is necessarily incident to term contracts in general.

Constitutional freedom of contract does not mean that a party is to be as free after making a contract as before; he is not free to break it without accountability.

Freedom of contract, from the very nature of the thing, can be enjoyed only by being exercised, and each particular exercise of it involves making an engagement which if fulfilled prevents for the time any inconsistent course of conduct.

87 Kan. 752 reversed.

The facts, which involve the constitutionality under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the statute of Kansas of 1909 making it unlawful for employers to coerce, require, or influence employees not to join or remain members of labor organizations, are stated in the opinion.

Page 236 U. S. 6

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