Buckley v. Valeo | Study Guide

United States Supreme Court

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Buckley v. Valeo | Quotes


What the Act regulates is giving and spending money, acts that have 1st Amendment significance not because they are themselves communicative with respect to the qualifications of the candidate, but because money may be used to defray the expenses of speaking or otherwise communicating about the merits or demerits of federal candidates for election.

Justice Byron White

In Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court found that money spent on campaigns is a form of speech, and therefore it is protected by the 1st Amendment. However, in his dissent Justice White expresses a more nuanced view of the role that money plays in political speech. Here, he argues that the spending itself is not a form of speech, but that money can have an impact on the ability of an individual or group to communicate with the public about a candidate. This means that White did see money as playing a role in political speech, but as a facilitator of speech rather than a form of speech itself.


The act of giving money to political candidates, however, may have illegal or other undesirable consequences: it may be used to secure the express or tacit understanding that the giver will enjoy political favor if the candidate is elected.

Justice Byron White

Here Justice White underlines one of the key concerns regarding campaign financing: By giving money to a campaign or spending money on behalf of a campaign, a group or individual could be buying a candidate's support. This differs from the ways in which a candidate might support groups and causes their supporters care about because the candidate could be effectively bribed by a small group or a single individual rather than being pushed by a large consensus.


The wealthy candidate's immediate access to a substantial personal fortune may give him an initial advantage that his less wealthy opponent can never overcome.

Justice Thurgood Marshall

As well as overturning restrictions on how much individuals or outside groups could spend on independent campaigns for or against candidates, the Supreme Court also overturned restrictions on how much candidates could donate to their own campaigns. Here Justice Marshall lays out his concerns regarding this decision, namely that it will give rich candidates a greater advantage than candidates with less personal funds to contribute.


The concept that government may restrict the speech of some elements of our society in order to enhance the relative voice of others is wholly foreign to the 1st Amendment.

Majority Opinion

Buckley v. Valeo rested on the question of whether limiting campaign spending was a violation of the 1st Amendment's freedom of speech clause. The Court found that it was, in part because of the principle laid out here. The decision in this case sets the precedent that the 1st Amendment upholds the right to freedom of speech without guaranteeing that all will be heard equally. Therefore, the fact that some might have more money to spend on a campaign compared to others does not mean their freedom of speech should be restricted as a result.


The candidate, no less than any other person, has a 1st Amendment right to engage in the discussion of public issues and vigorously and tirelessly to advocate his own election and the election of other candidates.

Majority Opinion

One of the key clauses of the FECA that was overturned was the limitation on how much candidates could spend on their own campaigns. Here the rationale for overturning these restrictions is explained. The Court found that restricting candidates' own donations to their campaigns amounted to limiting their own advocacy for that campaign, meaning their ability to speak to the public and communicate their ideas was limited.


Indeed, it is of particular importance that candidates have the unfettered opportunity to make their views known so that the electorate may intelligently evaluate the candidates' personal qualities and their positions on vital public issues before choosing among them on election day.

Majority Opinion

Here the Court goes further in their assessment of the role of candidate-funded campaigns. The Court found that candidates should be able to use their personal funds to campaign and here suggests that doing so strengthens democracy by ensuring the electorate is better informed when campaigns are well funded. This is the inverse of Justice Marshall's concerns regarding rich candidates putting more money into their campaigns than those with fewer resources available to them personally, which the Court does not indicate is a significant problem.


The perception that personal wealth wins elections may not only discourage potential candidates without significant personal wealth from entering the political arena, but also undermine public confidence in the integrity of the electoral process.

Justice Thurgood Marshall

Here Justice Marshall argues against the idea that candidates should be able to unrestrictedly give money to their own campaigns because it will impact the way the public sees elections. He argues that the advantage money can give to campaigns will create a sense that elections can be bought by rich candidates who can use their fortunes to buy access to the public, which in turn would undermine democracy. He also expresses concern that this perception could make those without significant wealth hesitant to run for public office, making politics the domain of the very rich.


The primary governmental interest served by the Act—the prevention of actual and apparent corruption of the political process—does not support the limitation on the candidate's expenditure of his own personal funds.

Majority Opinion

According to the Court, the purpose of FECA was to ensure corruption was not influencing federal elections. The Court here argues that candidates giving money to their own campaigns pose no such threat. When candidates donate to their own campaign, outside figures gaining influence over the candidates is not a concern.


The expenditure of money simply cannot be equated with such conduct as destruction of a draft card.

Majority Opinion

As part of oral arguments, individual contributions were likened to political conduct via the case United States v. O'Brien, in which restrictions on burning draft cards were upheld as constitutional. The case was presented as setting a precedent that conduct, or actions, were not protected by the 1st Amendment and that spending money is an action rather than a form of speech. Here the Supreme Court does not agree with the conflation of the two. The Court's decision was based in large part on the idea that spending money is a form of political speech rather than a form of conduct in and of itself.


The interests served by the Act include restricting the voices of people and interest groups who have money to spend and reducing the overall scope of federal election campaigns.

Majority Opinion

By indicating that FECA's "interests" of limiting corruption during election campaigns is "served by ... restricting the voices" of those who would be making donations to campaigns speaks to the way the Court sees political spending as a form of speech. It is also notable that the Court sees restricting political spending as a way of "reducing the ... scope" of campaigns. While advocates argued that FECA was a way of ensuring a more level playing field, this passage makes clear that the Court saw it as restrictive rather than helpful.


The congressional judgment, which I would also accept, was that other steps must be taken to counter the corrosive effects of money in federal election campaigns. One of these steps is § 608(e), which, aside from those funds that are given to the candidate or spent at his request or with his approval or cooperation, limits what a contributor may independently spend in support or denigration of one running for federal office.

Justice Byron White

Here Justice White voices his view of the decision to overturn limitations on independent campaign spending by individuals and groups. He points out that Congress's passage of FECA indicates that they found money being spent by independent groups and others unaffiliated with an official campaign as equally detrimental to the ethics of the election process and equally capable of being used to curry favor in much the same way as direct contributions. However, the Court did not agree and overturned that facet of the law, which Justice White sees as undoing important work to ensure the integrity of elections.


The quantity of communication by the contributor does not increase perceptibly with the size of his contribution, since the expression rests solely on the undifferentiated, symbolic act of contributing.

Majority Opinion

The Court decided that political spending can be a form of speech, but not in all cases. Here the Court explains that for individuals donating to official campaigns, donating more money does not correlate to being heard more; contributing is a form of conduct that itself acts as speech rather than spending money serving as speech itself. While this separation might seem unclear, this is the basis on which the limitations on individual donations was upheld while other restrictions were not. The Court is effectively saying that while donating to a campaign is a form of association that is not hindered by FECA, spending money independently is effectively buying speech, and therefore it is protected under the 1st Amendment.


The system for public financing of Presidential campaigns is, in my judgment, an impermissible intrusion by the Government into the traditionally private political process.

Justice Warren E. Burger

In addition to upholding limitations on individual campaign contributions, the Court upheld the creation of a public fund for campaigns that candidates could opt into if they chose. Here Justice Burger argues that this fund is inappropriate and that election financing should remain in private hands rather than public. He argues that the use of public funds to subsidize the political campaigns of private citizens is improper and calls into question the democratic process. In his dissent, he also challenges the Court for not fully considering the ramifications of public financing, which would mean financing political debate itself.


The limits imposed by the 1st and 14th Amendments on governmental action may vary in their stringency depending on the capacity in which the government is acting.

Justice William Rehnquist

Here Justice Rehnquist argues that constitutional rights cannot be uniformly prescribed across the board when it comes to government actions. He points to differences in state versus federal actions as an example, arguing that one cannot apply the same definition of free speech to the states as one does to the federal government.


Congress, on the other hand, while undoubtedly possessing the legislative authority to undertake the task if it wished, is not obliged to address the question of public financing of Presidential elections at all.

Justice William Rehnquist

While Justice Rehnquist allows that Congress has the ability to look into public funding of elections, he notes that it is not obligated to do so. This means that while Congress is within its rights to take action, that action itself is not necessary. Therefore, any violations of the 1st Amendment that come from action taken by Congress in this area is not shielded by the precedent set by other cases where necessity demanded action be taken regardless of possible constitutional problems.

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