First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765; 98 S. Ct. 1407; 55 L. Ed. 2d 707 (1978)

First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765; 98 S. Ct. 1407; 55 L. Ed. 2d 707 (1978)

Facts—Appellants were national banking associations and business corporations that wanted to publicize their views. They opposed a referendum proposal to amend the Massachusetts Constitution that would allow the legislature to enact a graduated personal income tax. The attorney general of Massachusetts advised the corporation against making contributions or expenditures “for the purpose of influencing . . . or affecting the vote on any question submitted to the voters other than the one materially affecting any of the property, business or assets of the corporation.” The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts held that the corporation could not claim First or Fourteenth Amendment protections for its speech or other activities entitling it to communicate its position on that issue to the general public. Although the 1976 referendum had passed, the Court did not believe the question “moot” inasmuch as another referendum proposal was likely to arise.

Question—Does the Massachusetts law that prohibits corporations from spending money to influence a referendum violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments?


ReasonsJ. Powell (5–4). Freedom of speech and press embrace the liberty to discuss publicly and truthfully all matters of public concern without previous restraint or fear of subsequent punishment. If the speakers were not corporations, no one would suggest that the state could silence their proposed speech. Speech is indispensable to decision making in a democracy “and this is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation rather than an individual.” Although the press informs and educates the public and offers criticism and provides a forum for discussion and debate, it “does not have a monopoly on either the First Amendment or the ability to enlighten.” If a legislature may direct business corporations to “stick to business” it may also limit other corporations—religious, charitable, or civil—to their respective “business” when addressing the public. “Such power in government to channel the expression of views is unacceptable under the First Amendment.”

J. White and J. Rehnquist authored dissents in which they would have deferred to state judgments about the extent of corporate speech on issues not tied directly to such businesses.

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