New York City politicians try to silence corporate speech

Earlier this year Allison Hayward blogged about New York City politicians using their pension funds to work with the so-called campaign finance ‘reform’ community to push corporations into agreeing to surrender or at least sharply curtail their First Amendment rights recognized in Citizens United. One of the companies identified as a target of this attack was Sprint Nextel.

On Wednesday the Comptroller of New York City John Liu put out a press release touting a vote of Sprint Nextel’s shareholders addressing the company’s political spending:

New York City Comptroller John C. Liu announced a victory for NYC pensioners and institutional investors in the effort to increase corporate disclosures of political donations. Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) released vote totals this week that show 53% of votes at its annual shareholder meeting support the New York City Pension Funds’ proposal for transparency on its political contributions. It is one of the largest majorities ever recorded on the issue.

“Investors, pensioners, and taxpayers demand that corporations reveal their campaign spending,” Comptroller Liu said. “This victory for opening the books on political contributions sends a message that corporations ignore at their own risk.”

“Since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, I have been spearheading a national campaign to make companies more transparent and accountable with their political spending,” said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. “The shareholder vote at Sprint Nextel demonstrates that momentum behind this national movement is growing. I commend Comptroller Liu demanding greater corporate disclosure of political spending from these companies. Sprint Nextel should take heed of shareholder sentiment and adopt the resolution.”

On its face, the shareholder resolution (which is nonbinding, I think) isn’t really a big deal, or even needed. Contributions by corporations or anyone else for that matter that are intended for political purposes,  are routinely disclosed and reported to state and local regulatory bodies  (contributions by corporations are banned at the federal level).

And ultimately, shareholders are the boss at corporations – they can recommend any policy they want, and if the board doesn’t go along and shareholders find this sufficiently troubling, they can remove the board.

Looking a little deeper, however, there’s much to be concerned about from a First Amendment perspective. This was not a shareholder resolution sponsored by private citizens concerned about their investment, it was a government official using his office to push his own political agenda, which is decidedly anti-free speech when it comes to corporations.

Furthermore, and similar to the proposed executive order of the Obama administration concerning government contracting, this is not about actual political contributions, which are already fully disclosed. Instead, this is another attempt by self-styled ‘reformers’ to force companies to reveal their membership in trade associations that may engage in some political speech in addition to their much larger and broader scope of activities on behalf of their members.

Liu and de Blasio, two powerful New York City politicians, have made clear that they do not believe corporations have a right to engage in the political process in the way recognized in the Citizens United decision, and they are willing to use their offices to pursue this issue and silence voices that they don’t find helpful to their own political views and ambitions.

This is a serious and growing problem, as politicians like Liu and de Blasio team up with ‘reformers’ seeking to undo Citizens United by pushing corporate shareholder resolutions and attempting to bully businesses into remaining silent. Hopefully executives and shareholders will recognize their efforts not as an attempt to increase transparency, improve governance, and maximize profits, but to silence a voice that ‘reformers’ have long sought to exclude from the political process.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.