The L.A. Times' blog recently reported that the Los Angeles police officers' union tried to bully the San Diego Union-Tribune into firing editorial writers who argue that "lawmakers should cut back on salaries and benefits for public employees in order to help close gaping budget deficits." Gail Heriot calls the incident "chilling," and with good reason. I see a bright side to it, however.
Platinum Equity, a private firm, relies on a $30-million investment from the union's pension fund, along with large sums from the pension funds of other groups of California government employees, to help it buy companies. Platinum recently acquired the San Diego Union-Tribune. The L.A. police officers' union thus regards itself as a part owner of the paper—one that has purchased the right fire unwanted employees.
Exactly how much clout the union actually has over the paper remains to be seen. The San Diego Union-Tribune has publicly rebuffed the union's demands. As Heriot observes, however, "threats like these can cause a newspaper to soft-pedal its views even when the threats aren't carried out."
So what is the bright side? Many newspapers face financial difficulties, and would welcome capital infusions. This imbroglio will suggest to alert publications a ready way to attract investments from government-employees' unions: repeatedly and loudly demand that lawmakers reduce those employees' salaries and benefits. In effect, unions have signaled their willingness to subsidize their critics. State action would never have that effect; there is no profit to be had in suffering censorship. Score another point for the relative efficacy of market mechanisms—even when used by ignorant bullies—in encouraging freedom of expression.