Freedom of Speech Extended to Corporations

Since 1791, the First Amendment’s text has protected ‘‘the press.’’ Today, the press often is owned by large corporations whose speech rights are protected by the First Amendment as if they were people rather than legally created, artificial entities.

The doctrine of corporate personhood dates back to 1886, when the U.S. Supreme Court held in Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific that the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clause protects corporations just as it does persons. In 1936, the Court held in Grosjean v. American Press Co. that the corporate press was a ‘‘person’’ within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection and due processes clauses and that the tax at issue in the case ‘‘abridged the freedom of the press.’’ Then, in 1978, the Court ruled in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti that corporations possess a First Amendment right of free speech. It wrote that speech about government affairs is ‘‘indispensable to decisionmaking in a democracy, and this is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation rather than an individual.’’ It added that ‘‘[i]n cases where corporate speech has been denied the shelter of the First Amendment, there is no suggestion that the reason was because a corporation rather than an individual or association was involved.’’ Corporate speech in the form of truthful advertising about lawful products/ services receives protection today under the commercial speech doctrine.

Corporate speech is now a ‘‘dominant discourse,’’ as Herbert Schiller wrote. Corporations control the marketplace of ideas and, some argue, use the protection of free speech to ward off government attempts to regulate the content they propagate.

CLAY CALVERT

References and Further Reading

  • Allen, David S. ‘‘The First Amendment and the Doctrine of Corporate Personhood: Collapsing the Press-Corporation Distinction.’’ Journalism 2 (2001): 255–278.
  • Schiller, Herbert I. Information Inequality: The Deepening Social Crisis in America. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765 (1978)
  • Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233 (1936)
  • Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Corp., 118 U.S. 394 (1886)

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