Supreme Court Cases

525 U.S. 182 (1999)

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Case Overview

Legal Principle at Issue

Whether several conditions placed by the state of Colorado on the ballot-initiative process infringe on political free-speech rights, including:
(1) a requirement that initiative-petition circulators be registered voters; (2) a requirement that circulators wear an identification badge; and (3) a requirement that proponents of the initiative disclose certain information, such as names and addresses of paid circulators and amount paid to each circulator.


Affirmed (includes modified). Petitioning party did not receive a favorable disposition.


Colorado amended the state law regulating the ballot initiative and referendum petition process. Several plaintiffs, including the public interest group American Constitutional Law Foundation, Inc., sued. The group claimed various provisions of the law violated First Amendment political free-speech rights: (1) a six-month restriction on when circulations must be filed; (2) a requirement that all circulators sign an affidavit; (3) requirement that circulators be 18 years or older; (4) a requirement that circulators be registered Colorado voters; (5) a requirement that circulators wear identification badges; and (6) disclosure requirements. The appeals court upheld the six-month restriction, the age of majority requirement and the affidavit-signing provisions. However, the appeals court ruled that the registered voter, badge identification and disclosure requirements infringed on First Amendment rights.

The circulating of petitions during elections represents core political speech which receives the highest level of protection under the First Amendment. Meyer v. Grant, 486 U.S. 414 (1988). Though a state may regulate such activity, the state must show that its regulations serve a compelling state interest without burdening speech. However, states must have the ability to regulate elections to ensure a fair and honest democratic process. Storer v. Brown, 415 U.S. 724 (1974).

Importance of Case

The Court strengthened the First Amendment rights of petition and political speech by subjecting state regulations of the ballot-initiative process to the highest level of judicial scrutiny. The case could limit the trend of increasing state regulation of the referendum process.

All three requirements burden core political expression and thus must be subject to the highest form of judicial scrutiny.
Limiting petition circulators to registered voters burdens political speech. The requirement limits the number of voices who can speak and cuts down on the size of the audience that will hear the speech. Forcing name identification on a badge "discourages participation in the petition circulation process" because it "compels personal name identification at the precise moment when the circulator's interest in anonymity is greatest." Listing paid circulators and forcing disclosure of payments is only "tenuously related" to the state's substantial interests.

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