First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti 435 U.S. 765 (1978)

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Although the Supreme Court had extended first amendment protections to newspapers that were organized as corporations, this was the first case to hold explicitly that the freedom of speech was not a "purely personal" right such as the right against self-incrimination and so might be claimed by corporations. In this case and in virginia state board of pharmacy v. virginia city consumer council (1976), the Justices adopted the position that where there is a willing speaker, he may be protected by the First Amendment not so much because of his own speech interest but because of the societal interest in maximizing the stock of information upon which the public may draw. Thus a banking corporation was held to have speech rights because limiting its speech would limit the electorate's access to vital information.

After defeat of a referendum authorizing a personal income tax, which was attributed by some to corporation-funded advertising, Massachusetts adopted a statute forbidding a corporation to spend money for the purpose of influencing the vote on referenda not directly affecting the corporation, including referenda on individual income taxation. In the face of this obvious attempt of protax legislators to muzzle their opponents, Justice lewis f. powell for the Court had little trouble concluding under a balancing test that the asserted state interests in preserving the integrity of the electoral process were not compelling and that the statute was not narrowly drawn to protect the interests of stockholders.

The dissent by Justices byron r. white, william j. brennan, and thurgood marshall sounds the theme of a legitimate state interest in limiting the influence of money on elections raised in buckley v. valeo (1976). Justice william h. rehnquist dissented alone on states ' rights grounds.

With the recognition of corporate speech rights and the recognition of some First Amendment protection for commercial speech, the Court set the stage for a whole new area of freedom-of-speech jurisprudence, particularly in the light of the high levels of corporate institutional and issue advertising engendered by environmental, energy, and deregulation policies. Among the difficult problems are the rights of stockholders who oppose advertised corporate stances and the extent to which laws against false and misleading advertising constitutionally can be applied to advertisements that do more than offer a product for sale.

Martin Shapiro

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First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti 435 U.S. 765 (1978)

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