Today is a great day for the First Amendment.
On a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the matching funds portion of Arizona’s publicly funded elections scheme.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said, “Arizona’s matching funds scheme substantially burdens political speech and is not sufficiently justified by a compelling interest to survive First Amendment scrutiny.”
The matching funds element of the law was always the most offensive to champions of free speech and of robust, competitive elections. We will not mourn its passing.
Under the matching funds system, publicly funded candidates received a dollar for every dollar their traditionally funded opponent spent over a set monetary cap.
The proponents for publicly funded elections claimed matching funds leveled the playing field. But what matching funds really did was tell traditionally funded candidates, their donors and independent expenditure groups to hit the mute button.
Regarding matching funds’ effect on independent expenditures, the majority writes, “In some ways, the burdens imposed on independent groups by matching funds are more severe than the burdens imposed on privately financed candidates. “
The Court goes on to say, “As a result, those groups can only avoid matching funds by changing their message or choosing not to speak altogether. Presenting independent expenditure groups with such a choice – trigger matching funds, change your message, or do not speak – makes the matching funds provision particularly burdensome to those groups and certainly contravenes the ‘fundamental rule of protection under the First Amendment, that a speaker has the autonomy to choose the content of his own message.’”
Publicly funded elections are a bad idea, but the matching funds provision made the system even worse. The death of matching funds is the canary in the coal mine for the whole publicly funded elections scheme, as I’m confident voters in November 2012 will choose to ban the use of public funds for political campaigns entirely.
Glenn Hamer is the president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry