First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti Case Brief

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet
The First Amendment protects one's right to free speech. In this lesson, we will see if the Supreme Court's decision in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti extended that right to corporations.

Can I Speak?

Let's say you are exercising your right to free speech by venting on your blog. Then you put up a sign up at your business that criticizes a recent tax increase, and police make you take it down because a business doesn't have free speech rights. Does this seem right? This is the issue facing the Supreme Court in First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978).

Facts of the Case

The state of Massachusetts passed a law that made it a crime for banks and business corporations to spend money or make contributions ''for the purpose of . . . influencing or affecting the vote on any question submitted to the voters, other than one materially affecting any of the property, business or assets of the corporation.'' The First National Bank of Boston and a group of other financial institutions and corporations wanted to spend money on a series of ads that spoke against Massachusetts' proposed income tax.

They sought an opinion from the Massachusetts State Attorney General, Francis Bellotti, asking if they qualified as corporations that were ''materially affected by the proposed income tax,'' which would mean that they would be free to spend the money on the ads. The Attorney General said that First National Bank was not ''materially affected'' and thus was prohibited from spending money on the ads. To support this, the Attorney General pointed to wording in the law that said a bank was not ''materially affected'' just because they paid taxes.

The Bank and others affected brought their claim directly to a single justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court who reserved judgment and referred the matter to the full court, which held that the matter was moot because the law had been defeated at the ballot box. The United States Supreme Court took up the appeal.

Historical Background

Since the turn of the 20th Century, Congress had restricted corporations from contributing to election campaigns. The Tillman Act was passed in 1907, which prohibited corporations from giving money to campaigns for federal election, and in 1947, they passed the Taft–Hartley Act, which added labor unions to the list of entities banned from giving to federal campaigns.

Then in 1971, Congress passed the Federal Election Campaign Act, which required full reporting of any contributions to federal elections. An amendment to the act three years later created the Federal Election Commission, which began oversight of the enforcement of campaign finance laws and instituted tougher restrictions on contributions and campaign expenditure in federal campaigns.

Soon after the commission was formed, U.S. Senator James Buckley filed suit challenging the restrictions as a violation of the First Amendment's free speech clause, which prohibited the government from interfering with a person's free speech. In Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the Supreme Court held that restrictions on expenditures were unconstitutional as they violated free speech. They also held that contributions to federal campaigns can be limited but not prohibited.

This answered some of the questions regarding federal campaign laws but did not address similar state laws concerning state elections.

Issue and Decision

The Supreme Court was asked whether the Massachusetts law prohibiting a corporation from spending money on or contributing to a political campaign violates the First Amendment rights of the corporation. The Court held that it did.

Justice Lewis Powell wrote for the majority, and he noted that the lower court framed the issue as to whether and to what extent the First Amendment protects a corporation. Justice Powell answered by rephrasing the question, ''Instead, the question must be whether §8 abridges expression that the First Amendment was meant to protect.''

Powell indicated that the focus should not be who has what rights, but if the First Amendment protects the activity that the Massachusetts law prohibits. He then examined the First Amendment freedom of speech clause, reasoning that it was to protect the right to publicly discuss issues important to a society. Powell then looked at the type of message and discussion that the law would have prohibited.

He reasoned that the message was about opposition to a proposed income tax and stated that this was exactly the type of message the First Amendment was designed to protect. In prohibiting such speech, the primary purpose of the amendment, which is to foster the exchange of ideas, would be severely crippled.

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