BROWN V. HARTLAGE, 456 U. S. 45 (1982)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Brown v. Hartlage, 456 U.S. 45 (1982)

Brown v. Hartlage

No. 80-1285

Argued January 20, 1982

Decided April 5, 1982

456 U.S. 45


Petitioner, the challenger, in a general election, for respondent's office as a Commissioner of Jefferson County, Ky., committed himself, at a televised press conference, to lowering Commissioners' salaries if elected. Upon learning that such commitment arguably violated a provision of the Kentucky Corrupt Practices Act (§ 121.055), petitioner retracted his pledge. On its face, § 121.055 prohibits a candidate from offering material benefits to voters in consideration for their votes. After petitioner won the election, respondent filed suit in a Kentucky state court, alleging that petitioner had violated § 121.055 and seeking to have the election declared void. Although finding that, under the reasoning of an earlier decision of the Kentucky Court of Appeals construing § 121.055, petitioner had violated the statute by promising to reduce his salary to less than that "fixed by law," the trial court concluded that petitioner had been "fairly elected," and refused to order a new election. The Kentucky Court of Appeals reversed.

Held: Section 121.055 was applied in this case to limit speech in violation of the First Amendment. Pp. 456 U. S. 522.

(a) Although the States have a legitimate interest in preserving the integrity of their electoral processes, when a State seeks to restrict directly a candidate's offer of ideas to the voters, the First Amendment requires that the restriction be demonstrably supported by not only a legitimate state interest, but a compelling one, and that the restriction operate without unnecessarily circumscribing protected expression. Pp. 456 U. S. 52-54.

(b) The application of § 121.055 in this case cannot be justified as a prohibition on buying votes. Petitioner's statements, which were made openly and were subject to the criticism of his political opponent and to the scrutiny of the voters, were very different in character from corrupting private agreements and solicitations historically recognized as unprotected by the First Amendment. There is no constitutional basis upon which his pledge to reduce his salary may be equated with a candidate's promise to pay voters privately for their support from his own pocketbook. A candidate's promise to confer some ultimate benefit on the voter, qua taxpayer, citizen, or member of the general public, does not lie beyond the pale of First Amendment protection. Pp. 456 U. S. 559.

Page 456 U. S. 46

(c) If § 121.055 was designed to further the State's interest in ensuring that the willingness of some persons to serve in public office without remuneration does not make gratuitous service the sine qua non of plausible candidacy -- resulting in persons of independent wealth but less ability being chosen over those who, though better qualified, cannot afford to serve at a reduced salary -- it chose a means unacceptable under the First Amendment. The State's fear that voters might make an ill-advised choice does not provide the State with a compelling justification for limiting speech. It is not the government's function to select which issues are worth discussing in the course of a political campaign. Pp. 456 U. S. 59-60.

(d) Nor can application of § 121.055 here be justified on the basis of the State's interests and prerogatives with respect to factual misstatements, on the asserted ground that the statute bars promises to serve at a reduced salary only when the salary of the official has been "fixed by law" and the promise cannot, therefore, be delivered. Erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate, and it must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the "breathing space" that they need to survive. Nullifying petitioner's election victory would be inconsistent with the atmosphere of robust political debate required by the First Amendment. There was no showing that he made the disputed statement other than in good faith and without knowledge of its falsity, or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not. Moreover, he retracted the statement promptly after determining that it might have been false. Pp. 456 U. S. 60-62.

618 S.W.2d 603, reversed and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J.,concurred in the judgment. REHNQUIST J., filed an opinion concurring in the result,post, p. 456 U. S. 62.

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