RESPONDENT: Francis X. Bellotti, Attorney General of Massachusetts
LOCATION: Boston, Massachusetts
DOCKET NO.: 76-1172
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
CITATION: 435 US 765 (1978)
ARGUED: Nov 09, 1977
DECIDED: Apr 26, 1978
GRANTED: Apr 18, 1977
Francis H. Fox - for appellants
Thomas R. Kiley - for appellees
Facts of the case
The National Bank of Boston, along with two other national banks and three corporations, wished to spend money to publicize their opposition to a ballot initiative that would permit Massachusetts to implement a graduated income tax. The Attorney General of Massachusetts informed the organizations that he intended to enforce a state statute that prohibited such organizations from making contributions to influence the outcome of a vote that does not materially affect their assets and holdings. The organizations sued and argued that the statute violated their First Amendment rights. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts upheld the constitutionality of the statute.
Does the First Amendment protect the rights of corporations to attempt to influence the outcome of elections in which they have no direct monetary interest?
Media for First National Bank of Boston v. BellottiAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 09, 1977 in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 26, 1978 in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti
Warren E. Burger:
The judgment and opinions of the Court in First National Bank of Boston against Bellotti will be announced by Mr. Justice Blackmun.
Mr. Justice Powell, excuse me, Mr. Justice Blackmun will come next.
Lewis F. Powell, Jr.:
This case is here on appeal from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.
It involves the right of corporation to express that views on issues submitted to a referendum vote.
Appellants are banks and business corporations doing business in Massachusetts.
A state statute makes it illegal for a bank or business corporation to spend money in favor of or against a referendum question, the only exception is where the corporation can prove that the issue materially affects it's business or property.
The statute also expressly provides that any question related to individual income taxes shall not be deemed to affect materially a corporation's business.
This provision was added to prevent corporation from taking any part in a referendum proposal that would authorize the legislature to enact a graduated personal income tax.
Appellants believing such attacks would have an adverse economic impact upon the state of Massachusetts, challenged the statute.
The Massachusetts court rejected the challenge.
It concluded that the only right of free speech enjoyed by corporations is incidental to the protection of their business or property.
The court, therefore, sustained the validity of the statute.
The case thus presents an important issue as to the speech rights of corporations under the First and Fourteenth amendments.
Although the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment speak of passage, corporations, both private and municipal, have been held to be persons under this provision for nearly a century.
The Court has repeatedly sustained the speech rights of corporations engaged in the media business and more recently the right to engage in commercial advertising.
The rationale of these decisions has not been based on the business interest of the corporations.
The First Amendment's primary concern, and therefore, the Court's concern, always has been the preservation of free and uninhibited dissemination of information and ideas.
If the restrictive view of corporate speech taken by the Massachusetts' court were accepted, government would have the power to deprive society of the views of corporations on all issues other than those that could be proved to affect adversely their property or business interest.
Corporations thus could be prohibited from expressing views by advertisements or otherwise on all matters of general public interest.
We view the Massachusetts' court's decision as seriously restricting public access to major sources of ideas and educational information.
No state interest have been identified of sufficient importance to justify this restriction on corporate speech and the consequent curtailment of information available to the public.
If a state has the power to confine business corporate speech to issues found by a court to affect only it's business or property of particular interest, it would be difficult not to recognize an equal power to curtail the speech of other forms of organizations, for example, non-profit corporations, Massachusetts trust, associations, and labor unions.
We conclude for the reasons set forth more fully in an opinion filed today with the clerk that the Massachusetts statute violates the First and Fourteenth amendments.
We accordingly reverse the judgment of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.
The Chief Justice has filed a concurring opinion.
Mr. Justice White has filed a dissenting opinion, in which Mr. Justice Brennan and Mr. Justice Marshall have joined.
Mr. Justice Rehnquist also has filed a dissenting opinion.
Warren E. Burger:
Thank you, Mr. Justice Powell.