Law School Case Brief
Ariz. Free Enter. Club's Freedom Club PAC v. Bennett - 564 U.S. 721, 131 S. Ct. 2806 (2011)
Discussion of public issues and debate on the qualifications of candidates are integral to the operation of the American system of government. As a result, the First Amendment has its fullest and most urgent application to speech uttered during a campaign for political office. Laws that burden political speech are accordingly subject to strict scrutiny, which requires the Government to prove that the restriction furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.
The Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act created a public financing system to fund the primary and general election campaigns of candidates for state office. Candidates who opt to participate, and who accept certain campaign restrictions and obligations, are granted an initial outlay of public funds to conduct their campaign. They are also granted additional matching funds if a privately financed candidate's expenditures, combined with the expenditures of independent groups made in support of the privately financed candidate or in opposition to a publicly financed candidate, exceed the publicly financed candidate's initial state allotment. Once matching funds are triggered, a publicly financed candidate receives roughly one dollar for every dollar raised or spent by the privately financed candidate--including any money of his own that a privately financed candidate spends on his campaign--and for every dollar spent by independent groups that support the privately financed candidate. When there are multiple publicly financed candidates in a race, each one receives matching funds as a result of the spending of privately financed candidates and independent expenditure groups. Matching funds top out at two times the initial grant to the publicly financed candidate.
Petitioners, past and future Arizona candidates and two independent expenditure groups (IEG) that spend money to support and oppose Arizona candidates, challenged the constitutionality of the matching funds provision, arguing that it unconstitutionally penalizes their speech and burdens their ability to fully exercise their First Amendment rights. The District Court entered a permanent injunction against the enforcement of the matching funds provision. The Ninth Circuit reversed, concluding that the provision imposed only a minimal burden and that the burden was justified by Arizona's interest in reducing quid pro quo political corruption.
Did the Arizona statute's general grant, to publicly financed political candidates, of funds matching certain expenditures supporting privately financed candidates or opposing publicly financed candidates, violate the free speech clause of Federal Constitution's First Amendment?
On certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed. The Court held that Arizona's matching funds scheme substantially burdened political speech and was not sufficiently justified by a compelling interest to survive First Amendment scrutiny. There was no compelling state interest in "leveling the playing field" that could justify undue burdens on political speech. The provision counted a candidate's expenditures of his own money, and to that extent could not be supported by any anticorruption interest. Arizona's program gave money to a publicly financed candidate in direct response to the campaign speech of a privately funded candidate or an independent expenditure group. It did so when the opposing candidate chose not to accept public financing and engaged in political speech above a level set by the State. The matching funds provision substantially burdened political speech without serving a compelling state interest.
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