The US Supreme Court, Free Speech, and Corporate Citizenship

Many of you are already aware of last week’s controversial decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. Basically, the decision struck down a part of the U.S. government’s law that limited the freedom of corporations (and unions) to engage in political speech.

But saying that you are free to do something is not the same as saying that you should do it or that there are no limits on the way you should do it. Ethics is, in part, about figuring out what limits we ought to accept on our own behaviour, beyond the limits imposed by law.

Here’s a very useful piece that looks at the Citizens United case from that point of view, by Wayne Norman (of Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics), writing in The News & Observer: With ‘citizenship’ comes great responsibility:

For the foreseeable future, “corporate citizens” have a right to speak their minds and to spend as much as it takes to get you to hear their message.

But should they? Is it ethical to actually exercise these rights – for example, to spend money to try to defeat a candidate who would tighten regulations on the firm or its industry?

It is time to shine more light on a realm of corporate responsibility that tends to get overlooked when we are focusing on more obvious irresponsible behaviors like pollution, sweatshops or excessive risk taking….

Wayne goes on to suggest a couple of likely obligations, including an obligation on the part of corporate citizens to use their free speech rights in ways conducive to the public good, and an obligation to be transparent about their lobbying.

But I think the key contribution, here, is the idea that the Court’s decision is not just a conclusion — it’s the starting point for a (renewed) conversation about what a corporation’s responsibilities are in how it exercises free speech in the realm of politics.

9 comments so far

  1. Tony Branch on

    Wayne Norman’s comment that with “citizenship” comes great responsibility is quite valid. It will be instructive to see how much big business takes this to heart.

    One can wonder at the professional ethics of several members of the Supreme Court who assured Congress during their appointment hearings that they were deferential to congressional authority. Now in office, they turn out out to be among the most activist judges in US history.

  2. rob on

    Interesting point. If we do think that the corporations are acting in a morally blameworthy way, who is it that is morally blameworthy? The corporation itself? The individuals who make the decisions? I’ve argued the latter before, but not everyone agrees with me. What do you think?

  3. John M on

    While I’m not an expert, I have for a long time been deeply alarmed by the idea that corporations are in some real sense persons in the United States under some demented, IMHO, interpretation of the 14th Amendment to their Constitution.

    So my first impression is to see this recent decision (which I’d missed, thanks for pointing it out) as another dagger pointed at the heart of democracy itself. More specifically, I worry about regulatory capture by large financial firms, so removing limits on corporate lobbying through 1st Amendment “personal” free speech rights is especially troubling.

    Which is to say that I feel that a corporation is not a naturally ethical creature, and that would go against an explicit assumption of this blog, which is most concerned with corporate ethics 😉

    Looks like I’d better sharpen up my thoughts a bit …

  4. Chris MacDonald on


    It depends on the situation. In some cases it makes ethical & legal sense to blame an individual. Some wrongs really are individual wrongs. In other cases, both the law and the best ethical thinking suggests that corporations as a whole should be held responsible. Corporations, for example, can be charged with criminal offences (in both Canada and the U.S.)


    The idea of corporate personhood is by no means unique to the U.S. Rather, it’s fundamental to the role of corporations in all modern economies. (Indeed, it’s a very old notion, going back at least hundreds of years in Europe.)
    See my earlier blog posting: Why Corporations Must be Legal Persons
    We should not confuse the idea that corporations are “in some sense” persons (in the eyes of the law) with the crazy idea (which no one advocates, and certainly not the U.S. Supreme Court) that corporations should have all the same rights as competent adult human beings.

  5. Chris MacDonald on

    FYI, I just declined (as Moderator) two comments submitted here.
    One was exceedingly long and off-topic. The other was merely off-topic.


  6. DarryleHuffman on

    Transparency in lobbying would be the critical point. Their must be transparency if the corporate citizen wants to be seen as an ethical company. With everyone wanting to influence the politician then to have transparency would make it fair for everyone and not just a one sided legislature. Money should never be the determining factor factor in laws that is why
    transparency is place by the requiring of reporting of
    contributions to political

  7. John M on

    … I’ve taken the liberty of posting an extensive reply at our blog: “Why Corporations Must *Not* be Legal Persons”

  8. […] in the wake of Citizens United, I did a trio of blog entries on the topic. See my 1st, 2nd, and 3rd entries. A few months earlier, I had written about Why Corporations Must Be Legal […]

  9. […] as defined above, means that other, related ideas like Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and corporate citizenship and sustainability are in fact sub-topics within the broader topic of business ethics. That’s […]

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