The First Amendment, the securities laws and hedge funds

Larry Ribstein —  3 January 2011

I have been writing for some time about the First Amendment and the securities laws.  In a nutshell, the formerly inviolate notion that the securities laws are a First-Amendment-free zone has always been constitutionally questionable.  The questions multiply with the expansion of the securities laws.  The Supreme Court’s recent broad endorsement of the application of the First Amendment to corporate speech in Citizens United signals that we may finally get some answers. 

The bottom line is that securities regulation that burdens the publication of truthful speech is subject to the First Amendment.

For a little history:  I first wrote on this issue 16 years ago in my article with Henry Butler, Corporate Governance Speech and the First Amendment, 43 U. Kans. L. Rev. 163 (1994).  This was the basis of a chapter in Butler & Ribstein, The Corporation and the Constitution,  excerpted here.

I’ve written on this subject from time to time since the 90s: 

  • On the unconstitutionality of Regulation FD (which requires firms that disclose material nonpublic information to securities market professionals to disclose the same information simultaneously or promptly to the public, thereby effectively restricting truthful statements to analysts)
  • On the SEC’s recent mandatory disclosures on global warming.
  • Most recently, on the SEC’s proxy access rule (14a-11), where I noted that “the ramifications of Citizens United may be even broader than were initially supposed.  Speech about capitalism finally may get the same protection as, say, pornography.  And one of the first casualties of this approach may be ill-considered and unnecessary SEC restrictions on truthful speech.”

And now:  Bulldog Investors’ challenge of Massachusetts securities laws forbidding it from disseminating truthful information about its investment products. Here’s the complaint against Bulldog and a lower court opinion from last summer on a suit filed by Leonard Bloness, a non-investor who is simply seeking information about Bulldog.

The trial court opinion notes that from about June 9, 2005, to January 5, 2007, Bulldog Investors maintained a website that made certain information about its products available to any visitor, subject to getting the visitor’s agreement to a disclaimer providing, in part, “[t]he information is available for information purposes only and does not constitute solicitation as to any investment service or product and is not an invitation to subscribe for shares or units in any fund herein.”  The visitor could get more information by registering with certain information. 

The Massachusetts regulatory action began when an employee of a law firm that was representing a client in litigation with Bulldog registered on the Bulldog website and received an email with additional information about Bulldog funds. The administrative complaint alleged that Bulldog had offered unregistered/nonexempt securities for sale in the Commonwealth through the website. Bulldog denied the allegations and raised a First Amendment defense.  While this action was pending, the Bloness complaint was filed seeking relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 from the alleged violation of their First amendment Rights.

The basic problem here is that Bulldog lost its exemption when it generally advertised its fund through its website and followup email.  As a result, it is broadly barred from distributing information about its funds, however truthful, including to people who are accredited investors like Bloness.  Nor does it matter, as with Bloness, whether the people seeking access to the site are even would-be investors, as distinguished from scholars and journalists who want information on the industry.

The administrative action concluded with a cease and desist order and fine of $25,000.  The court later denied plaintiffs’ mostion for preliminary injunction on the 1983 complaint.

At the July 31, 2009, trial of that case, the court received the expert testimony of Suffolk law professor Joseph Franco of Suffolk University Law School that, according to the court’s summary, ” the regulatory scheme directly serves the identified governmental interest, and that none of the alternatives would do so as effectively.”

The court denied relief, concluding:

Capital formation is, of course, an important goal, which is to some degree in tension with investor protection and market integrity. Regulatory constraints that protect market integrity impose burdens on issuers and sellers of securities. In that respect, they may tend to impede capital formation. It follows that relaxation of such regulatory restraints might ease capital formation. The state regulatory scheme in issue here, and the corresponding federal scheme, reflect a regulatory choice to emphasize market integrity over capital formation. This Court has no authority to second-guess that choice. Rather, once it has been established (as it has been here by stipulation), that the interest the regulator seeks to serve is a substantial one, the Court’s role is to determine whether the means the Secretary has chosen to effectuate that choice is proportional to that interest, as measured by the criteria articulated in Central Hudson. Neither the Advisory Committee’s report nor the New York City Bar’s letter purports to address that issue, and neither sheds any light on it.

The Court concludes, based on the stipulated facts and the evidence presented at trial, that the statute and regulations in issue, and the Secretary’s enforcement action against Bulldog Investors, meet the test of Central Hudson, and do not violate the First Amendment rights either of Bulldog or of Mr. Bloness. A declaration will enter to that effect.

The case is now on appeal.  Here’s a website with the briefs.  The court will hear oral argument  to be posted here, on January 6.  I understand via an email from Bulldog’s Phil Goldstein (also reported here) that Harvard Professor Laurence Tribe will argue the case for Bulldog.

Tribe’s participation suggests the constitutionality of the securities laws may finally get the attention the issue has long deserved.  And, as I noted above, Citizens United suggests this attention may not be favorable to those laws (I expect to have another post on that later this week).  The Massachusetts case threatens the entire scheme for new issues under the Securities Act of 1933, while the 14a-11 case threatens significant chunks of federal proxy regulation. The reasoning in these cases could affect some mandatory disclosure rules, particularly including Regulation FD.

Stay tuned.

Larry Ribstein

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Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law

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  1. More on the First Amendment and proxy access « Truth on the Market - January 21, 2011

    […] post on the constitutionality of Regulation FD. With respect to 1933 Act disclosures, see my post on the Bulldog Investors case. And for a general analysis of all these issues, see my article with […]