Bellotti at 40: Corporations, Political Spending, and the First Amendment

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, a landmark case that paved the way for Citizens United. It’s not an anniversary to celebrate.

In Bellotti, the Supreme Court (by a 5-4 margin) struck down a Massachusetts law that prohibited corporations from spending money on ballot initiative campaigns, holding that this violated the corporations’ First Amendment rights. Justice Rehnquist dissented:

A State grants to a business corporation the blessings of potentially perpetual life and limited liability to enhance its efficiency as an economic entity. It might reasonably be concluded that those properties, so beneficial in the economic sphere, pose special dangers in the political sphere. Furthermore, it might be argued that liberties of political expression are not at all necessary to effectuate the purposes for which States permit commercial corporations to exist. … Indeed, the States might reasonably fear that the corporation would use its economic power to obtain further benefits beyond those already bestowed.

Justice White (joined by Justices Brennan and Marshall) also dissented, writing:

The electoral process, of course, is the essence of our democracy. It is an arena in which the public interest in preventing corporate domination and the coerced support by shareholders of causes with which they disagree is at its strongest and any claim that corporate expenditures are integral to the economic functioning of the corporation is at its weakest.

Bellotti , the ballot measure vote, a tool intended to promote direct democracy, is more often an opportunity for unlimited corporate spending.

Furthermore, while Bellotti didn’t address corporate spending on candidate campaigns, it paved the way for the Supreme Court’s disastrous 2010 Citizens United decision. And it helped develop the doctrinal foundation for corporate First Amendment challenges to other types of laws, such as environmental protections, as explained in our new report on Contaminating the Courts: The Corporate Campaign to Misuse the Constitution to Attack the Environment.

To learn more about Free Speech For People’s campaign to overturn BellottiCitizens United, and related cases through a constitutional amendment, click here. To learn more about our legal advocacy to challenge and roll back these court decisions in court while we continue to work on an amendment, click here. And to help support this work, click here.

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