Inside the Bellotti Court

Abstract: No publishing company has ever been denied First Amendment protection because it was incorporated. In First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, however, the Supreme Court confronted for the first time questions about the impact of corporate identity on the First Amendment protections available to non-media businesses. This Article explains why Justice Powell’s opinion for the Bellotti Court avoided confronting the assertion that non-media corporations lacked the First Amendment protection afforded natural persons or media corporations. Instead of focusing on the speaker, Powell focused on the speech. In doing so, Powell laid the theoretical foundation of Citizens United v. FEC.

Using the papers of Justice Powell, as well as those of Justices Brennan, White, Marshall and Blackmun, this Article explicates the crafting of the Bellotti opinion. Powell was constrained because none of his colleagues would support an opinion aligning corporate First Amendment rights with those of individuals or the press. By shifting the emphasis from the speaker to the speech and stressing the harm to the audience’s right to receive expression caused by government distortion of the marketplace of ideas, Powell found an easier path to five votes. In effect, though, Powell was able to place Bellotti in the same constitutional space as press cases where corporate identity is immaterial to First Amendment analysis.

The Conscience of Corporations and the Right Not to Speak

Abstract: Despite the fact that corporations do not have consciences, in recent years the Supreme Court has been presented with the question of whether restrictions on the actions of a corporation abridge the First Amendment conscience rights of shareholders. Although the Court in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission sidestepped that question, in another October 2017 Term case, National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra (NIFLA), the Court was presented with conscience claims by a group of pro-life pregnancy care clinics challenging a California law requiring the dissemination of information about the availability elsewhere of state-funded abortions. The NIFLA petitioners, organized as nonprofit corporations, raised an interesting conscience claim; the California law violated their consciences. The NIFLA Court ignored this conscience claim, instead finding the law to be unconstitutional content discrimination. Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion, though, conflated the nonprofit corporations and their members, finding the law violated the consciences of individuals. Kennedy’s concurring opinion raises significant questions about the corporate law doctrine of veil piercing and its application in First Amendment cases.

This Article argues that the Court should avoid derivative rights analysis and veil piercing in First Amendment cases involving for-profit corporations. The Court has sufficient analytical techniques embedded in its content-based framework to protect speaker autonomy with deriving rights for a corporation from the humans associated with the corporation or addressing the complexities of veil piercing. To explain why corporate compelled speech cases should be decided without reference to conscience, this Article explores two foundational corporate speech cases, First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti and Pacific Gas & Electric v. Public Service Commission, both authored by Justice Powell. Using Powell’s papers, along with those of Justices Blackmun, Brennan, Marshall, and White, this Article reveals why Powell’s Bellotti opinion avoided examining the nature of corporations and why his PG&E opinion created a compelled speech doctrine that is free of concern for conscience. The Article concludes that assessment of content discriminatory effects should be the methodology used in compelled corporate speech cases.