The First Amendment and Corporate Governance

Larry Ribstein —  12 January 2011

I have spent some time over the last year discussing the Supreme Court’s big corporate speech case, Citizens United — at Stanford and Georgia State, and in an archive full of Ideoblog posts.

Now my paper on the case, The First Amendment and Corporate Governance, is finally available on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract:

The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United did not end the controversy over regulating corporate speech. Although the Court broadly subjected regulation of corporate speech to the First Amendment, it did not wholly preclude regulation of corporate governance processes that produce corporate speech. The Court’s opinion therefore shifted debate concerning corporate speech from corporations’ “external” distortion of the political process to their “internal” distortion of shareholders’ self-expression. This paper shows that regulation of the corporate governance process that produces speech faces significant obstacles under the First Amendment. These include the limited efficacy of regulation of corporate governance, regulation’s potential for protecting the expressive rights of some shareholders by suppressing others, and the uncertain implications of this rationale for types of speech other than that involved in Citizens United. These problems with the corporate governance rationale for regulating corporate speech suggest that protection of shareholders’ expressive rights may be trumped by society’s interest in hearing corporate speech and the First Amendment’s central goal of preventing government censorship.

As you can see from the abstract, I have moved on from debating whether the case is rightly decided to thinking about what will happen in the post-Citizens United era, particularly regarding corporate governance regulation and commercial speech. 

I think my paper is an important addition to the discussion of Citizens United.  It struck me at the AALS Business Associations/Con Law session on Citizens United last week that a lot of law professors do not seem to have fully internalized the fact that the Supreme Court has decided to protect corporate speech.  And the law professors who are thinking about the corporate governance implications of Citizens United haven’t fully internalized the fact that the First Amendment applies to this issue.  Thus, Bebchuk & Jackson’s recent paper devotes just a few paragraphs to the constitutionality of their proposals.

So if you want the lowdown on how the constitution now applies to corporate governance, read my paper.

Larry Ribstein

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Professor of Law, University of Illinois College of Law

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