A recent decision relating to Wisconsin’s controversial law restricting the collective-bargaining rights of public sector unions in the state raises an important question that I constantly come up against when it comes to discussing Constitutional rights with people who don’t have a background in the law. According to a Madison lawyer, a federal district judge determined that the law restricts the free speech rights of those in public sector unions. Now, for most people, if this was the case, that would mean that the law would be illegitimate. But that’s not why the judge made his decision as he did; instead, his argument is that the government failed to demonstrate a compelling state interest in restricting these rights.
When it comes to the Constitution, most people tend to think that its provisions, especially those contained in the Bill of Rights, are absolute, even if they know that you’re not allowed to shout “fire!” in a crowded theater. But that’s exactly what judges mean when they say compelling state interests: Constitutional rights are absolute, unless there’s something more important at stake. So the next time you think, “They can’t do that, it’s in the Constitution!” remember – maybe they can.