WASHINGTON -- The speech policeman's lot is not a happy one, as the University of Montana at Missoula is learning. Herewith a tale about the mess that institution has made by regulating political speech.
Perhaps the university noticed the praise that speech rationers in Washington receive when, in the name of combating corruption or the appearance thereof, they regulate, as with the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, the timing, quantity and content of political speech. In any case, the university has a rule that limits candidates for student government offices to spending a maximum of $100 when campaigning among the university's 10,000 students.
Restrictions on freedoms, and especially freedoms as fundamental as those of the First Amendment, require serious justifications. So the question is: To what pressing problem did the university's $100 limit respond? Or is it merely another manifestation of the regnant liberalism common on most campuses -- the itch to boss people around?
Again, what caused the university to so severely circumscribe the spending necessary to disseminate political advocacy? Was it big-money corruption, or the appearance of it, in student politics and government? Not exactly.
The Associated Students of the University of Montana (ASUM) allocates student activity fees, which are public funds, and lobbies students, the university administration and the state Legislature on policy matters. In April 2004, Aaron Flint ran for the student senate. During the campaign, a large number of posters critical of him appeared around the campus. He believes they were placed by the University of Montana College Democrats and the liberal Montana Public Interest Research Group. Neither group is subject to the expenditure limits applied to candidates.
To counter this opposition, Flint spent $214.69 of his own money on professionally made posters and pizza for his campaign workers. He won. But because he spent an impermissible $114.69 -- enough to buy seven large Domino's pepperoni pizzas -- in order to respond to unregulated speech, ASUM removed him from office. This presumably taught the university's students important lessons about the civic danger posed by too many posters (too much political speech) and too much pizza, and about the dignity of the law.
Flint took the university to court, charging that his rights of political speech and association had been violated. A district court, genuflecting before the university's academic autonomy, declared the $100 limit a reasonable measure to "ensure all students enjoy equal access to the educational benefits available through student elections and governance."