5 days ago

Can government force you to pay for someone else’s expression?

By Ethan W. Blevins Attorney

Think on these three statements:

  1. A law forbids you from posting a sign that says, “Vote for Voldemort.”
  2. A law forces you to post a sign that says, “Vote for Voldemort.”
  3. A law forces you to pay for someone else’s sign that says, “Vote for Voldemort.”

Should the First Amendment treat these laws differently?

The Supreme Court has said no. Government can neither shut your mouth nor pry it open. Compelled speech offends our right to express and stay true to our own beliefs as surely as compelled silence. And that includes being forced to sponsor someone else’s speech. If you don’t want to express support for Voldemort, you don’t have to. We wouldn’t have much of a democracy if the government could force individuals to sponsor viewpoints and political candidates that they abhor.

Seattle, though, has other ideas. Under the City’s “democracy voucher” program, taxpayers are forced to pay for other people’s campaign contributions. Seattleites get $25 vouchers that they can donate to a candidate of their choice, and that money in turn comes from a dedicated property tax.

Over the summer, PLF sued the City under the First Amendment in Elster v. City of Seattle. Our clients, property owners Mark Elster and Sarah Pynchon, don’t want to fund campaign contributions to candidates that they oppose. And the First Amendment says they don’t have to.

Today, we filed our response to the City’s motion to dismiss our clients’ claim. We also responded to several interest groups who filed amicus briefs to support Seattle (view the amicus briefs here and here). Both Seattle and the interest groups argued that the voucher program actually furthers the First Amendment because it promotes speech.

Our response points out that the First Amendment is framed as a constraint on power, not an authorization to meddle with the marketplace of ideas. It says, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” That language limits government; it does not authorize government to violate some people’s speech rights in the name of promoting more speech.

A core premise of individual liberty is that government cannot sacrifice the rights of the few for the good of the many. As Justice Louis Brandeis famously warned: “Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent.” This warning rings with even greater truth when government offers to meddle in our political dialogue with the promise of good will.

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