CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT.
White, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens, JJ., joined. O'connor and Scalia, JJ., concurred in the judgment. Kennedy, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case centers around the respondent union's peaceful handbilling of the businesses operating in a shopping mall in Tampa, Florida, owned by petitioner, the Edward J. DeBartolo Corporation (DeBartolo). The union's primary labor dispute was with H. J. High Construction Company (High) over alleged substandard wages and fringe benefits. High was retained by the H. J. Wilson Company (Wilson) to construct a department store in the mall, and neither DeBartolo nor any of the other 85 or so mall tenants had any contractual right to influence the selection of contractors.
The union, however, sought to obtain their influence upon Wilson and High by distributing handbills asking mall customers not to shop at any of the stores in the mall "until the Mall's owner publicly promises that all construction at the Mall will be done using contractors who pay their employees fair wages and fringe benefits."*fn1 The handbills'
message was that "the payment of substandard wages not only diminishes the working person's ability to purchase with earned, rather than borrowed, dollars, but it also undercuts the wage standard of the entire community." The handbills made clear that the union was seeking only a consumer boycott against the other mall tenants, not a secondary strike by their employees. At all four entrances to the mall for about three weeks in December 1979, the union peacefully distributed the handbills without any accompanying picketing or patrolling.
After DeBartolo failed to convince the union to alter the language of the handbills to state that its dispute did not involve DeBartolo or the mall lessees other than Wilson and to limit its distribution to the immediate vicinity of Wilson's construction site, it filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (Board), charging the union with engaging in unfair labor practices under § 8(b)(4) of the National
Labor Relations Act (NLRA), 61 Stat. 141, as amended, 29 U. S. C. § 158(b)(4).*fn2 The Board's General Counsel issued a complaint, but the Board eventually dismissed it, concluding that the handbilling was protected by the publicity proviso of § 8(b)(4). Florida Gulf Coast Bldg. & Constr. Trades Council, 252 N. L. R. B. 702
(1980). The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the Board, 662 F.2d 264 (1981), but this Court reversed in Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. v. NLRB, 463 U.S. 147 (1983). There, we concluded that the handbilling did not fall within the proviso's limited scope of exempting "publicity intended to inform the public that the primary employer's product is 'distributed by' the secondary employer" because DeBartolo and the other tenants, as opposed to Wilson, did not distribute products of High. Id., at 155-157. Since there had not been a determination below whether the union's handbilling fell within the prohibition of § 8(b)(4), and, if so, whether it was protected by the First Amendment, we remanded the case.
On remand, the Board held that the union's handbilling was proscribed by § 8(b)(4)(ii)(B). 273 N. L. R. B. 1431 (1985). It stated that under its prior cases "handbilling and other activity urging a consumer boycott constituted coercion." Id., at 1432. The Board reasoned that "appealing to the public not to patronize secondary employers is an attempt to inflict economic harm on the secondary employers by causing them to lose business," and "such appeals constitute 'economic retaliation' and are therefore a form of coercion." Id., at 1432, n. 6. It viewed the object of the handbilling as attempting "to force the mall tenants to cease doing business with DeBartolo in order to force DeBartolo and/or Wilson's not to do business with High." Id., at 1432. The Board observed that it need not inquire whether the prohibition of this handbilling raised serious questions under the First Amendment, for "the statute's literal language and the applicable case law required" a finding of a violation. Ibid. Finally, it reiterated its longstanding position that "as a congressionally created administrative agency, we will presume the constitutionality of the Act we administer." Ibid.
The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit denied enforcement of the Board's order. Florida Gulf Coast Bldg. & Constr. Trades Council v. NLRB, 796 F.2d 1328, 1346
(1986). Because there would be serious doubts about whether § 8(b)(4) could constitutionally ban peaceful handbilling not involving nonspeech elements, such as patrolling, the court applied our decision in NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 440 U.S. 490 (1979), to determine if there was a clear congressional intent to proscribe such handbilling. The language of the section, the court held, revealed no such intent, and the legislative history indicated that Congress, by using the phrase "threaten, coerce, or restrain," was concerned with secondary picketing and strikes rather than appeals to consumers not involving picketing. 796 F.2d, at 1336-1340. The court also concluded that the publicity proviso did not manifest congressional intent to ban all speech not coming within its terms because it was "drafted as an interpretive, explanatory section" and not as an exception to an otherwise-all-encompassing prohibition on publicity in § 8(b)(4). Id., at 1344. The court went on to construe the section as not prohibiting consumer publicity; DeBartolo petitioned for certiorari. Because this case presents important questions of federal constitutional and labor law, we granted the petition, 482 U.S. 913 (1987), and now affirm.
The Board, the agency entrusted by Congress with the authority to administer the NLRA, has the "special function of applying the general provisions of the Act to the complexities of industrial life." NLRB v. Erie Resistor Corp., 373 U.S. 221, 236 (1963); see Pattern Makers v. NLRB, 473 U.S. 95, 114 (1985); NLRB v. Steelworkers, 357 U.S. 357, 362-363 (1958). Here, the Board has construed § 8(b)(4) of the Act to cover handbilling at a mall entrance urging potential customers not to trade with any retailers in the mall, in order to exert pressure on the proprietor of the mall to influence a particular mall tenant not to do business with a nonunion construction contractor. That statutory interpretation by the Board would normally be entitled to deference unless that construction were clearly contrary to the intent of Congress. Chevron U. S. A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 842-843, and n. 9 (1984).
Another rule of statutory construction, however, is pertinent here: where an otherwise acceptable construction of a statute would raise serious constitutional problems, the Court will construe the statute to avoid such problems unless such construction is plainly contrary to the intent of Congress. Catholic Bishop, supra, at 499-501, 504. This cardinal principle has its roots in Chief Justice Marshall's opinion for the Court in Murray v. The Charming Betsy, 2 Cranch 64, 118 (1804), and has for so long been applied by this Court that it is beyond debate. E. g., Catholic Bishop, supra, at 500-501; Machinists v. Street, 367 U.S. 740, 749-750 (1961); Crowell v. Benson, 285 U.S. 22, 62 (1932); Lucas v. Alexander, 279 U.S. 573, 577 (1929); Panama R. Co. v. Johnson, 264 U.S. 375, 390 (1924); United States ex rel. Attorney General v. Delaware & Hudson Co., 213 U.S. 366, 407-408 (1909); Parsons v. Bedford, 3 Pet. 433, 448-449 (1830) (Story, J.). As was stated in Hooper v. California, 155 U.S. 648, 657 (1895), "the elementary rule is that every reasonable construction must be resorted to, in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality." This approach not only reflects the prudential concern that constitutional issues not be needlessly confronted, but also recognizes that Congress, like this Court, is bound by and swears an oath to uphold the Constitution. The courts will therefore not lightly assume that Congress intended to infringe constitutionally protected liberties or usurp power constitutionally forbidden it. See Grenada County Supervisors v. Brogden, 112 U.S. 261, 269 (1884).
We agree with the Court of Appeals and respondents that this case calls for the invocation of the Catholic Bishop rule, for the Board's construction of the statute, as applied in this case, poses serious questions of the validity of § 8(b)(4) under the First Amendment. The handbills involved here truthfully revealed the existence of a labor dispute and urged potential customers of the mall to follow a wholly legal course of action, namely, not to patronize the retailers doing business in the mall. The handbilling was peaceful. No picketing or
patrolling was involved. On its face, this was expressive activity arguing that substandard wages should be opposed by abstaining from shopping in a mall where such wages were paid. Had the union simply been leafletting the public generally, including those entering every shopping mall in town, pursuant to an annual educational effort against substandard pay, there is little doubt that legislative proscription of such leaflets would pose a substantial issue of validity under the First Amendment. The same may well be true in this case, although here the handbills called attention to a specific situation in the mall allegedly involving the payment of unacceptably low wages by a construction contractor.
That a labor union is the leafletter and that a labor dispute was involved does not foreclose this analysis. We do not suggest that communications by labor unions are never of the commercial speech variety and thereby entitled to a lesser degree of constitutional protection. The handbills involved here, however, do not appear to be typical commercial speech such as advertising the price of a product or arguing its merits, for they pressed the benefits of unionism to the community and the dangers of inadequate wages to the economy and the standard of living of the populace. Of course, commercial speech itself is protected by the First Amendment, Virginia Pharmacy Bd. v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Inc., 425 U.S. 748, 762 (1976), and however these handbills are to be classified, the Court of Appeals was plainly correct in holding that the Board's construction would require deciding serious constitutional issues. See Consolidated Edison Co. v. Public Service Comm'n of N. Y., 447 U.S. 530, 534-535, 537 (1980); Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Co., 443 U.S. 97, 102-103 (1979); Organization for a Better Austin v. Keefe, 402 U.S. 415, 419-420 (1971).
The Board was urged to construe the statute in light of the asserted constitutional considerations, but thought that it was constrained by its own prior authority and cases in the Courts ...