Freeing Speech from Government Control:

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · November 27, 2007

Arlington, Va.—Starting today, the First Amendment right to free political speech will get its day in court as the merits of a challenge to Arizona’s scheme of taxpayer-funded campaigns—one of the nation’s most far-reaching—go before a federal district court.

The Institute for Justice will file papers today with the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona renewing a First Amendment challenge to the scheme on behalf of Arizona State Treasurer Dean Martin. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the case, Martin v. Brewer, in August, and sent it to the district court to decide whether the system is unconstitutional.

IJ will also ask the court to add the Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club PAC and the Arizona Taxpayer Action Committee to the case to ensure the rights of independent citizen groups to speak freely about candidates for public office are fully heard—and vindicated.

Arizona’s so-called “Clean Elections” scheme replaces traditional political campaigns funded by voluntary citizen donations with a campaign system funded by taxpayers and micromanaged by government bureaucrats. Arizona’s experience shows that “clean elections” inevitably mean government rationing of political speech for candidates in the system, candidates outside the system, and independent groups that simply want to make their voices heard in an election.

“America’s Founders drafted the First Amendment to ensure a healthy democracy with robust public debate and meaningful citizen participation in politics,” said Tim Keller, executive director of the Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter. “Arizona’s scheme of taxpayer subsidies for politicians results in precisely the opposite: It curbs speech, discourages participation and limits what voters can hear about politics.”

Indeed, limiting political speech is the whole point of the scheme. Arizona’s law sets strict government caps on how much candidates who participate can spend—and therefore on how much and how effectively they can communicate to citizens. Worse still, it coerces candidates who refuse taxpayer money—as well as independent citizen groups who wish to support them—to stay within the same caps. If they don’t, their taxpayer-funded opponents get even more taxpayer money.

“The dirty little secret of Arizona’s elections scheme is that it is designed to limit speech: Government controls the purse strings, so government decides how much speech is ‘enough,’” said Bill Maurer, executive director of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter and co-counsel in the case. “But in a free society, the government has no business micromanaging how citizens debate, of all things, who should run the government.”

Arizona’s system violates the First Amendment rights of candidates like Martin, who refused public money for his political campaign, by forcing them to abide by government caps on speech and spending. For every dollar Martin would have spent above the government cap, his taxpayer-supported opponent would have received even more public funds—up to two times the cap—virtually ensuring she could outspend him. So he too was subject to the cap, even though he opted out of the system. In other words, the government unconstitutionally chilled Martin’s speech.

“Arizona’s law creates a system of government censorship that favors taxpayer-funded candidates over those who choose to run without welfare for politicians,” said Martin. “It is a coercive scheme, designed to punish those who exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech and refuse government funding. And it creates two classes of candidates, one the government favors and the rest of us.”

The law similarly smothers the voices of independent groups like the Freedom Club PAC and Arizona Taxpayer Action Committee by heaping taxpayer subsidies on their political opponents. If a group spends money to support a privately funded candidate, the government steps up to the ATM (in this case, Arizona Taxpayers’ Money) and gives more money to the taxpayer-funded opponent.

“Arizona’s system punishes us when we voice our opinion in favor of one candidate by giving money directly to opposing candidates we disagree with and whom we wish to see defeated,” said Chad Kirkpatrick, Chairman of the Arizona Taxpayer Action Committee.

Under 30 years of U.S. Supreme Court precedent starting with Buckley v. Valeo, government spending caps on candidates and independent groups are illegal—unless voluntary. Arizona’s caps are anything but.

“Unfortunately, Arizona’s scheme of government-run and taxpayer-funded elections is one of the most far-reaching the nation—and those who favor greater limits on political speech hope to see it spread,” concluded Chip Mellor, IJ’s president and general counsel. “This case can set an important federal precedent against taxpayer-funded campaigns and in favor of our core rights as citizens to speak about politics without government control.”