In Ex parte Curtis, 106 U.S. 371 (1882), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of an 1876 act prohibiting U.S. government officials from requesting or receiving money from other government employees for political purposes. Justice Joseph Bradley’s dissent specifically evoked the First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, and assembly.
Court upheld law that prohibited government officials from receiving money from other government employees
Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite argued that the law did not differ in principle from previous laws that limited businesses in which government employees could be engaged. Congress designed the law to “promote efficiency and integrity . . . and to maintain proper discipline in the public service,” and it had the implied power to do so. If government supervisors could call on their subordinates for campaign contributions, government salaries might be raised and government funds used to sustain the political party in power.
Dissenting justice thought law limited First Amendment freedoms
Justice Bradley, in contrast, thought the law limited First Amendment freedoms and regarded it as too sweeping. He feared that the government was trying to buy out such rights and might even extend prohibitions to expenditures for money on religious causes.
Bradley distinguished this law from those that prohibited employees from engaging in incompatible pursuits. He indicated that the government had the power “to prevent the corrupt use of money in elections, or in political matters generally, or to prevent what are called political assessments on government employees, or any other exercise of undue influence over them by government officials or others.”
The Hatch Act and other 20th century laws have subsequently imposed further restrictions on the political speech of public employees.
John Vile is a professor of political science and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University. He is co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the First Amendment. This article was originally published in 2009.