The Supreme Court today turned back a constitutional challenge to spending limits for student government campaigns at the University of Montana, denying review of a June 2007 ruling by the Ninth Circuit that upheld the limits. The Supreme Court's action is a victory for the Associated Students of the University of Montana ("ASUM") and the University, which argued that the limits on campaign spending serve to assure all students, regardless of their financial circumstances, an equal opportunity to win election to student government.
Brenda Wright, Legal Director of Demos, a non-profit organization that assisted in defending the University's spending limits, called the ruling '"a victory for fair elections and educational opportunity," stating "the First Amendment was never designed to make student government participation a function of a student's wealth."
The case was brought in 2004 by former UM student Aaron Flint, who exceeded the $100 spending cap in his effort to win a seat on the ASUM Senate and was disqualified from taking his seat as a result of the violation. A nationally prominent opponent of campaign finance regulation, James Bopp, Jr., represented Flint and argued that the First Amendment guaranteed Flint the right to spend unlimited sums in his quest for a student government seat. The Ninth Circuit, however, found ample justification for ASUM's campaign limits, observing:
"Imposing limits on candidate spending requires student candidates to focus on desirable qualities such as the art of persuasion, public speaking, and answering questions face-to-face with one's potential constituents. Students are forced to campaign personally, wearing out their shoe-leather rather than wearing out a parent's--or an activist organization's--pocketbook."
The Supreme Court's ruling today means that the Ninth Circuit's decision will stand as the leading appellate precedent on the constitutionality of rules designed to foster fair access to student government participation. The Ninth Circuit includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
Demos attorneys Brenda Wright and Lisa J. Danetz joined David Aronofsky, University of Montana Legal Counsel, in defending the University's campaign spending limits in the Supreme Court.