Law School Case Brief
First Nat'l Bank v. Bellotti - 435 U.S. 765, 98 S. Ct. 1407 (1978)
A major purpose of U.S. Const. amend. I was to protect the free discussion of governmental affairs. It is the type of speech indispensable to decision-making in a democracy, and this is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation rather than an individual. The inherent worth of the speech in terms of its capacity for informing the public does not depend upon the identity of its source, whether corporation, association, union, or individual.
On an expedited basis and upon agreed facts, certain national banking associations and business corporations brought an action before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts challenging the constitutionality of Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 5, § 8 (1977), a state statute which forbid certain expenditures by banks and certain business corporations for the purpose of influencing the vote on referendum proposals, other than ones materially affecting any of the property, business, or assets of the corporation. The court directed the entry of a judgment upholding the constitutionality of the statute, holding that only when a general political issue materially affected a corporation's business, property, or assets could that corporation claim First Amendment protection for its speech or other activities entitling it to communicate its position on that issue to the general public.
Was the Massachusetts statute forbidding certain expenditures by banks and business corporations for the purpose of influencing the vote on referendum proposals constitutional?
The Court reversed the decision and held that that § 8 abridged expression that U.S. Const. amend. I was meant to protect. The Court ruled that freedom of speech was a fundamental component of the liberty safeguarded by the Due Process Clause of U.S. Const. amend. XIV, which applied to corporations, and that the protection afforded to speech by corporations did not differ from that afforded to natural persons. The Court further ruled that there was no compelling state interest which justified the prohibition of speech by corporations through § 8.
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