The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that requiring elected officials to recuse themselves from governance votes on issues where they have a conflict of interest does not violate First Amendment free speech rights, endorsing a position put forth in a friend-of-the-court brief by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The ruling in Nevada Commission on Ethics v. Carrigan noted that in addition to contravening longstanding federal and state laws, the notion that a legislator’s vote is an expression of his deeply held personal beliefs is wrong. A legislative vote, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority, is a lawmaker’s expression of the power he’s been granted by the people who voted for him; “the legislator has no personal right to it.”
“Voting by lawmakers is not the kind of speech the First Amendment’s free speech clause intended to protect,” Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish said. “The First Amendment is intended to protect people from government interference with their right to expression, particularly political speech. It is not designed to allow elected officials to vote on issues in which they have a conflict of interest. We are pleased that the Supreme Court recognized the implications of confusing governance with speech, and that the justices acted so decisively to protect the First Amendment.”
The Reporters Committee was joined by 14 news organizations and the Student Press Law Center in the friend-of-the-court brief filed in the case, in which a Sparks, Nev., city council member who claimed that a state law prohibiting lawmakers from voting on issues in which they have a conflict of interest violated their right to free speech, which in this case was expressed through the act of voting on legislation. Though the Nevada Supreme Court agreed, the U.S. Supreme Court did not. It reversed the lower court, and it sent the case back for consideration.
Founded in 1970 to combat an increase in subpoenas seeking reporters' confidential sources, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail.
In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee sets up special event reporters' hotlines, is a party in amicus briefs and statements of support, and it offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists year-round. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.