A group of roughly 75 Ohio University students and local and regional residents – many of them union members – gathered outside of Galbreath Chapel on College Green Monday evening to protest a speech from a lawyer associated with the “right-to-work” movement who successfully argued the Janus v. AFSCME U.S. Supreme Court case in 2018.

Lawyer William Messenger, an OU alum and staff attorney with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, was invited by the university’s George Washington Forum to give a “Constitution Day” lecture at Galbreath Chapel entitled “Can Free Speech be Compelled? The First Amendment and Speech Rights.”

“Right to work” refers to a series of laws in roughly half of all U.S. states that ban employees in unionized workplaces from negotiating contracts with their employers that require all workers who benefit from the union contract to pay for the cost of the union’s representation.

Ohio voters most recently in 2011 voted down a ballot initiative that would have implemented a form of right to work. 

Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO labor union, said during a brief speech at the student-led protest outside Galbreath Monday that Ohioans have said “time and time again” that they don’t support right-to-work laws with their vote or their support of pro-union state and federal legislators.

“We have a right to come together collectively to say we want a voice at work,” Burga said. “To be able to take care of our families, have some benefits, a few days of vacation here and there, and being able to have a shot at the American dream, that’s what we’re talking about.”

Messenger during his speech at Galbreath mostly strayed from the question of “right-to-work” laws, and largely focused on the question of the First Amendment as it relates to freedom-of-speech issues, although he did discuss the Janus decision as well as the 2010 landmark Citizens United v. FEC decision. He noted a long history of Supreme Court rulings and other case law that suggests that money, and how citizens spend their money, is a protected form of “speech.” 

Messenger did say in a brief comment before the forum that he thinks “right-to-work” laws are about “worker free choice.”

“That’s what it’s all about as far as I’m concerned,” Messenger said. “Every individual has the right to choose (if) they want to support a union or not.”

While his speech mostly focused on the topics outlined above, Messenger’s presence on campus raised some eyebrows in part because OU’s classified staff is currently considering whether or not to unionize. Protester Ryan Powers also connected Messenger's presence on campus with a "history of union-busting" by the university, referring to an incident The NEWS reported on back in 2015 where OU call center workers attempted to unionize.

However, George Washington Forum organizer Robert Ingram, an OU professor of history, pointed out in his introductory remarks prior to Messenger’s speech that the university did not contribute any money to the event, nor did it specifically invite Messenger. He said it was part of a tradition of the forum, which “aims not just to bring viewpoint diversity here to OU but also to provide a forum where sometimes contentious subjects can be debated in a reasonable way.”

Dominic Detwiler, an OU senior who helped organize the protest outside Galbreath, charged during the protest that the university was giving a “platform” to Messenger, calling him a “corporate hack.”

“As students, we have a responsibility to show the university that we don’t accept this attack on the workers who make this university what it is,” he said. “We don’t accept the harmful rhetoric and lies of right to work and Bill Messenger.”

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision (with Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch voting in favor) in the Janus case last year overturned 40-plus years of precedent – essentially ruling that public sector unions cannot force all employees to pay the “fair share” fees mentioned above in order to pay for that union representation (no matter what, a union typically advocates on behalf of all employees). Many had predicted in the wake of that decision that it would reduce union participation and thereby their ability to negotiate better working conditions for workers, although it’s not clear yet how much that’s happened.

Detwiler noted that the George Washington Forum – which has hosted controversial conservative speakers in the past – receives funds from the Charles Koch Foundation.

“This organization and their hack,” Detwiler said, referring to Messenger, “are ruining the lives of hardworking Americans, lining the pockets of far-right corporate influencers like Charles Koch. We should be absolutely ashamed for allowing this man and this ideology anywhere close to this campus.”

Detwiler further argued that the George Washington Forum should never have invited Messenger to campus.

Ingram said in a brief comment Tuesday that no funds from the Koch Foundation group went toward this speaking event. He said Messenger was brought to campus solely with grants from the Thomas W. Smith Foundation and the Jack Miller Center.

Ingram provided a brief response to Detwiler’s charges as well.

“My sense is that what was going on outside and inside of Galbreath Chapel last night were two fundamentally different things,” Ingram said. “What was going on outside was activism, which involves advocating for a particular policy position. What was going on inside was intellectual debate, which involves the public, reasoned, vigorous, rigorous, civil exchange of ideas. Activism is the stuff of raw politics; reasoned intellectual debate is proper business of a university.”

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