Monday, June 4, 2007
Court: University’s Student Candidate Spending Cap Constitutional
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
A public university does not violate the First Amendment by imposing a campaign spending limitation on candidates running for student government posts, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
Affirming an order by U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy, of the District of Montana, the court upheld the University of Montana’s $100 cap on expenditures by those seeking election to its student government organization, the Associated Students of the University of Montana.
Former University of Montana student Aaron Flint, who graduated in 2004, sued the school and several ASUM members after he was prevented from taking office as an ASUM senator following election. Though he had received enough votes to win, he was denied office because he had exceeded the campaign spending limit.
Free Speech Claim
At the time he ran for the Senate, Flint was ASUM president for the 2003-2004 academic year. He had violated ASUM bylaws during his presidential campaign by exceeding the spending cap and failing to fully disclose his expenditures, but was allowed to retain his office after election after being censured by the Senate.
When seeking a Senate position the following year, he properly submitted a form reporting $214.69 in spending, but was told by the organization’s election chairman that his name would be removed from the ballot because he violated the spending limit.
Flint replied that the organization’s procedures required a two-thirds vote of the Senate approving the chairman’s recommendation, which would not be possible until the election was already underway. An alternative, Flint suggested, was to recommend the Senate prohibit candidates who violated election rules from taking office.
After elections began, the ASUM Senate voted to remove Flint from his Senate seat were he to win, resulting in the denial of his office.
In his suit, Flint alleged the university’s spending cap infringed his right of free speech under the U.S. Constitution.
The parties did not dispute that campaign expenditures, which implicate a student candidate’s ability to convey his message to the student body, constituted “speech” qualifying First Amendment protection. The university, however, moved for summary judgment arguing that a rational relationship standard applied to the spending cap.
Granting the motion, Molloy concluded that the $100 limit was reasonable.
On appeal, Flint contended that campaign spending as part of the ASUM election constituted “political speech” and the expenditure cap was thus subject to strict scrutiny.
The university argued that the court must defer to all reasonable decisions it imposed on student speech during elections.
Rejecting both views, the Ninth Circuit applied traditional First Amendment analysis, which determines the nature of a given speech forum and whether the limitation on speech is a legitimate exercise of government power in preserving that forum’s character.
Not Political Government
As to Flint’s argument, the court concluded ASUM was not akin to political government, the ASUM election was not tantamount to a congressional race, and ASUM officeholders were not the equivalent of elected political officeholders.
Writing for the court, Judge Carlos T. Bea explained:
“The University uses ASUM primarily as an educational tool—a means to educate students on principles of representative government, parliamentary procedure, political compromise, and leadership. In contrast to participation in state or national politics, participation in ASUM student elections is limited to ASUM-enrolled University students. . . . Indeed, ASUM’s entire operation is subject to the Board of Regents’ policies and campus policies.”
Applying forum analysis, Bea concluded that the ASUM election, with its accompanying rules and regulations, was the relevant “forum” and that it was limited in nature.
“While the Bylaws do not limit the content of campaign speech, the Bylaws certainly do not permit students or the general public to use the ASUM election system indiscriminately,” the judge said, pointing to the various restrictions on who could run and vote in student government elections.
The university met the constitutional requirement that restrictions on limited public fora be viewpoint neutral and reasonable, the judge continued.
“The $100 limit does not apply solely to vegetarians, pacifists and Marxists, but not to meat-eaters, bellicists and fascists,” he wrote. “Neither does the limit apply to candidates who might wish to abolish student government or at least intercollegiate athletics, but not to servile apple-polishers of the status quo or ‘jocks.’ Thus, the campaign expenditure limitation does not constitute viewpoint discrimination.”
Moreover, Bea said, the cap reasonably served the university’s pedagogical interests in educating student leaders. Limiting campaign spending requires student candidates to focus on “desirable qualities” such as public speaking and answering questions face-to-face with their potential constituents, he said, concluding:
“Students are forced to campaign personally, wearing out their sho[e]-leather rather than wearing out a parent’s—or an activist organization’s—pocketbook.”
Judges Susan P. Graber and Richard A Paez concurred in the opinion.
The case is Flint v. Dennison, 05-35441.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company