The 6-3 high court decision stemmed from a case against Frederick Vopper, a Pennsylvania radio host who, during a protracted teachers union strike in 1993, broadcast a taped cellular phone conversation between a union negotiator and the union’s president.
According to the court’s majority opinion, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, First Amendment free speech protection overpowers wiretapping laws in this case.
“A stranger’s illegal conduct does not suffice to remove the First Amendment shield from speech about a matter of public concern,” Stevens wrote.
During the taped conversation, teachers’ union negotiator Gloria Bartnicki complained to union president Anthony Kane Jr. about the Wyoming, Pa. school board’s reluctance to approve a proposal for a 3 percent teacher pay raise.
“If they’re not going to move for 3 percent, we’re gonna have to go to their homes … to blow off their front porches,” Kane said during the call. “We’ll have to do some work on some of those guys.”
Bartnicki and Kane sued after Vopper began repeatedly broadcasting the conversation on his radio program.
Vopper received the tape from Jack Yocum, the leader of a group opposed to the union’s wage proposals, who was also named in the suit. No one has come forward to take responsibility for making the tape.
Today’s decision upholds a lower court ruling in Vopper’s favor.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas cast the dissenting votes.
Penning the dissenting opinion, Rehnquist said the ruling now means federal law and the laws in 40 states violate the First Amendment when an illegally recorded conversation involves a matter of public concern.