Friday, June 01, 2007

Flint v. Dennison (9th Cir. - June 1, 2007)

I must admit that when I initially thought about this case, my first thought was that the University of Montana had violated the First Amendment by imposing a $100 cap on how much any student could contribute/spend on his own campaign for student office. My mind -- naturally, I think -- thought of Buckley v. Valeo, and since a cap on personal expenditures for public office would be unconstitutional, my initial reaction was that the same would probably be true here.

But Judge Bea convinces me otherwise. I'm not entirely on board for the way in which he applies the various doctrines, but I'm ultimately persuaded that student offices -- and the educational mission of a University -- are sufficiently different from campaigns for public govermental positions that the cap on expenditures here is constitutionally permissible. An educational institution can, I think, legitimately decide: "We want running for office to be a learning experience, and done in a particular manner (e.g., without massive expenditures and with a focus on personal and face-to-face interactions and public addresses), and we think that imposing a $100 limit on expenditures advances that educational experience." Such a electoral regime, I'm persuaded, does not violate the First Amendment.

One other, admittedly tangential, thing about this case. Something that you wouldn't get from reading the opinion. Back in 2001, the same lawyer for the plaintiff here (James Bopp, from Terre Haute, Indiana) filed and won a lawsuit in the Central District of California against U.C. Irvine for imposing an identical $100 cap on expenditures for student office. I assume that Mr. Bopp thought this was going to be a pretty easy victory, as well as a nice way to obtain Section 1988 fees. But it was not to be.

Why exactly U.C. Irvine didn't appeal their loss to the Ninth Circuit, whereas U. Montana did, is not entirely clear to me. Perhaps Montana was simply smarter. Regardless, the $100 cap is constitutional. Which doesn't buy that much pizza and beer for the electorate. So much the "worse" for college students, I guess.