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U.S. Supreme Court

First Nat'l Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765 (1978)

First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti

No. 76-1172

Argued November 9, 1977

Decided April 26, 1978

435 U.S. 765


Appellants, national banking associations and business corporations, wanted to spend money to publicize their views opposing a referendum proposal to amend the Massachusetts Constitution to authorize the legislature to enact a graduated personal income tax. They brought this action challenging the constitutionality of a Massachusetts criminal statute that prohibited them and other specified business corporations from making contributions or expenditures

"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 statute specified that

"[n]o question submitted to the voters solely concerning the taxation of the income, property or transactions of individuals shall be deemed materially to affect the property, business or assets of the corporation."

On April 26, 1976, the case was submitted to a single Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts on an expedited basis and upon agreed facts. Judgment was reserved, and the case was referred to the full court. On September 22, 1976, the court directed entry of a judgment for appellee and issued its opinion upholding the constitutionality of the statute after the referendum, at which the proposal was rejected.


1. The case is not rendered moot by the fact that the 1976 referendum has been held and the proposal for a constitutional amendment defeated. The 18-month interval between legislative authorization of placement of the proposal on the ballot and its submission to the voters was too short for appellants to obtain complete judicial review, and likely would be too short in any future challenge to the statute; and in view of the number of times that such a proposal has been submitted to the electorate, there is reasonable expectation that appellants again will be subjected to the threat of prosecution under the statute. Weinstein v. Bradford, 423 U. S. 147, 423 U. S. 149. Pp. 435 U. S. 774-775.

2. The portion of the Massachusetts statute at issue violates the First Amendment as made applicable to the States by the Fourteenth. Pp. 435 U. S. 775-795.

Page 435 U. S. 766

(a) The expression proposed by appellants, namely, the expression of views on an issue of public importance, is at the heart of the First Amendment's concern. There is no support in the First or Fourteenth Amendment, or in this Court's decisions, for the proposition that such speech loses the protection otherwise afforded it by the First Amendment simply because its source is a corporation that cannot prove, to a court's satisfaction, a material effect on its business. Although appellee suggests that this Court's decisions generally have extended First Amendment rights only to corporations in the business of communications or which foster the self-expression of individuals, those decisions were not based on the rationale that the challenged communication materially affected the company's business. They were based, at least in part, on the Amendment's protection of public discussion and the dissemination of information and ideas. Similarly, commercial speech is accorded some constitutional protection not so much because it pertains to the seller's business as because it furthers the societal interest in the "free flow of commercial information." Virginia State Bd. of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, 425 U. S. 748, 425 U. S. 764. Pp. 435 U. S. 776-783.

(b) The asserted justifications for the challenged statute cannot survive the exacting scrutiny required when the legislative prohibition is directed at speech itself and speech on a public issue. This statute cannot be justified by the State's asserted interest in sustaining the active role of the individual citizen in the electoral process and preventing diminution of his confidence in government. Even if it were permissible to silence one segment of society upon a sufficient showing of imminent danger, there has been no showing that the relative voice of corporations has been overwhelming or even significant in influencing referenda in Massachusetts, or that there has been any threat to the confidence of the citizenry in government. And the risk of corruption perceived in this Court's decisions involving candidate elections is not present in a popular vote on a public issue. Nor can the statute be justified on the asserted ground that it protects the rights of shareholders whose views differ from those expressed by management on behalf of the corporation. The statute is both underinclusive and overinclusive in serving this purpose, and therefore could not be sustained even if the purpose itself were deemed compelling. Pp. 435 U. S. 788-795.

371 Mass. 773, 359 N.E.2d 1262, reversed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and STEWART, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J.,filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 435 U. S. 795. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in

Page 435 U. S. 767

which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 435 U. S. 802. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 435 U. S. 822.

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