A recent and important article The Corporate Free Speech Racket from Washington Monthly dives into the misuse of the First Amendment and free exercise rights by corporations and how these entities are effectively using the claim of corporate personhood to subvert government regulation. The article also features a quote from our Legal Advisory Committee member, Tamara Piety.
The article reads:
In late summer 2011, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) released a new rule requiring businesses to put up an eleven-by-seventeen-inch black-and-white poster notifying employees of their rights under federal law. The poster, drafted over the course of a year by a committee of rule makers taking into account more than 7,000 public comments and dozens of meetings with industry groups, labor unions, and “right-to-work” advocacy organizations, emerged as would have been expected: even-keeled and rather bland.
Beneath the official NLRB seal and above the phrase “This is an official government poster,” it informed employees that they have the right to join or not to join a union, and that they cannot be coerced into doing either. Still, the business community was incensed. Describing the new rule as yet another government intrusion that would do nothing more than “create unemployment,” “weaken the economy,” and cause “immediate, irreparable harm for which no adequate remedy at law exists,” a coalition of industry groups led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) launched a firestorm of litigation, eventually suing the agency in two federal appellate courts.
On its face, this little drama isn’t all that surprising. For the past decade or so, industry groups have made a habit of waging war in the form of endless litigation on regulatory agencies, hoping to slow the rule-making process, drain agency resources, and, when possible, get final rules thrown out. In most cases, these lawsuits play out in the weedy battleground of administrative law, where lawyers tussle over economic analyses or some minutiae within the Administrative Procedure Act. But this time was different. This time, NAM, the biggest trade group in the country, was arguing that by forcing companies to “engage in speech they would not otherwise issue,” the government was “in violation of their rights under the First Amendment.”
And that, dear readers, is a pretty ballsy claim. For one, it’s a little like dealing with your gopher problem by firebombing the neighborhood. By claiming that the government cannot, under the Constitution, compel companies to “engage in speech they would not otherwise issue,” NAM is essentially undercutting nearly all economic regulation.
“If that seems alarmist, it’s not,” wrote University of Tulsa law professor Tamara Piety, the author of Brandishing the First Amendment. In the legal context, the current definition of “speech” is famously fuzzy and could, depending on the situation, include very nearly everything a company does, from advertising and performing financial transactions to transferring data and utilizing computer algorithms. So if NAM’s claim were true, it’s very possible that the government couldn’t regulate any of those activities. “If you cannot regulate commercial speech,” Piety wrote, “you cannot regulate commerce, period.”