Do Corporations Have a Right to Freedom of Speech?
As of the beginning of 2011, corporations in the US do have at least a partial right to freedom of speech, though this can certainly be amended or altered by future legislation or legal action. The issue of freedom of speech with regard to corporations is an aspect of “corporate personhood,” which refers to the concept of a corporation as a single entity or person, and what rights that corporate person enjoys. This has been a source of much debate and numerous US Supreme Court cases, and the 2010 case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission indicated that corporations have the right to freedom of speech.
The right to freedom of speech refers to the right of a person in the US to freely voice his or her opinion and views without punishment by the government. This is afforded by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which prevents the government from creating laws that interfere with the right to freedom of speech. Such rights do not grant absolute freedom of expression for anyone, since making threats of violence can be illegal, and businesses can punish employees based on statements they make, such as sexual harassment incidents.
There has been a great deal of debate regarding the right to freedom of speech with regard to corporations, which deals with the question of corporate personhood. Since the US Constitution and its amendments only grant freedom of speech and similar rights to individuals, these rights are not necessarily extended to corporations and businesses. The argument that has been made, however, is that corporations are merely collections of people, and so should have the same rights as those individuals. This has often been supported by interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution that indicates the rights in the Constitution, such as the right to freedom of speech, are granted to all US citizens.
The interpretation of this amendment, and its relation to corporate personhood, has not been flawless. Lawyers representing corporations have often argued that businesses should not have to reveal tax information or financial records under protection of the Fifth Amendment and freedom from self-incrimination. This has not been recognized, however, so corporations tend to have some rights under the Constitution, while not having others.
In the 2010 ruling by the US Supreme Court on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, however, the nonprofit corporation Citizens United was deemed to have the right to freedom of speech. Previous laws had banned the use of corporate money in funding political advertisements that would air in close proximity to an election. This ruling, however, declared that such limitations infringed upon the free speech of corporations, and granted corporations the right to freedom of speech, though future rulings could alter such rights.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do corporations have the same right to freedom of speech as individuals?
Here in the United States, businesses and people alike have the same protections of free speech. This gives them the ability to voice their opinions on matters of public concern in the same way that individuals do.
Can corporations be sued for exercising their freedom of speech?
Although companies have the same rights to free speech that people have, they are nonetheless susceptible to legal penalties for their behavior regardless of whether or not they have the freedom to speak freely.
For instance, a business may be held liable for defamation if it made false or misleading assertions about someone or if it exercised its right to free speech in a way that was intended to bring someone else into disrepute.
Are there restrictions on what corporations can say with their freedom of speech?
There are, in fact, limits placed on the kinds of things that companies can say when they exercise their right to free speech. They are not allowed to engage is speech that is hateful, defamatory, or deceptive in nature.
Can corporations be penalized for exercising their freedom of speech?
Yes. In situations where the corporation is deemed to have misused their right to free speech, they can be punished by the law.
For instance, a firm might be fined for participating in deceptive or misleading advertising, and the company could also be held accountable for any damage that may have been created as a result of the words that they used. Both of these outcomes would fall under the category of potential liability.
Do shareholders have a say in a corporation's political speech?
Shareholders only have a limited ability to affect the political speech of corporations, though, because in most cases, the management of the firm is the one who makes the final decision.
There have been several new legal challenges over "corporate personhood" since this article was published. I think the issue that disturbs me most is the idea that a corporation's leaders can object to something their employees might need, like health insurance coverage for birth control devices. I think when you're talking about a company, it's not the same thing as all the people who work for it. It's not something that I think should be recognized as a "person".
I think of some companies where all of the executives follow the same religion. They don't have the right to hire only people who also ascribe to that same religion, although they might want to try very hard to do it. I have no problem with the president of the company speaking out against something he strongly disagrees with morally, such as same-sex marriage or abortion. But I don't think his company as a whole should present that opinion as universal.
I don't have much of a problem with corporations having some rights under the 1st Amendment, as long as they are truly speaking for the entire company, not just the owners or executives. I am a registered Democrat, for example, and my company is mostly owned by conservative Republicans. I have a problem with my company paying for campaign ads for the Republican candidates in November. Their personal political preferences don't fairly represent my preferences, so the company isn't really speaking for ALL of its employees.
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