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Protecting Property Owners’ Free Speech Rights

Elster v. City of Seattle

Case Status

Date Filed

December 13, 2019

Last Step

Petition for certiorari denied.

Next Step

Case Overview

The First Amendment doesn’t just protect the right to speak freely; it also protects the right not to speak—including the right not to pay for somebody else’s speech. Yet the city of Seattle is forcing people who own property there to pay for other people’s contributions to candidates for office—whether they want to or not.

Seattle has imposed a special tax on property owners that is used exclusively to pay for “democracy vouchers.” Seattle residents each receive four of these vouchers, worth $25 each, which they may use to make contributions to qualifying candidates for city office.

As a result, property owners are forced to pay for the campaigns of candidates whose policies they disagree with. For example, landlords are forced to pay for contributions to candidates who seek to deprive landlords of their property rights through policies such as rent control. And property owners who don’t want to give money to any candidate cannot avoid doing so.

Two Seattle property owners sued to challenge this scheme for violating their First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, the Washington Supreme Court ruled against them, so now they’re asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case, Elster v. City of Seattle. The Goldwater Institute has filed an amicus brief supporting their petition.

The democracy vouchers’ advocates claim that the program serves First Amendment values by increasing participation in the political process. But, as the Goldwater Institute’s brief explains, the First Amendment exists to protect individual rights—it doesn’t authorize the government to sacrifice individuals’ speech rights for the supposed greater “civic” good.

Case Documents

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