BEAVERTON—Public relations groups including the Public Relations Society of America and the Council of Public Relations Firms, media giants such as The New York Times and CNN, and Fortune 500 companies such as Pfizer are among more than 40 parties joining Nike in urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review an unprecedented California state court ruling with significant First Amendment implications.
In a series of amicus briefs, a diverse group of public interest groups, businesses, media outlets, and other business and communications associations expressed serious concern over the California decision, which effectively eliminates First Amendment protection for companies that speak out on public issues. Other organizations, including the ACLU of Northern California, had already sided with Nike in amicus briefs filed in the California court.
The briefs stem from a ruling of the California Supreme Court last May. The court held that because a company’s public statements about its operations might persuade consumers to buy its products, those statements must be treated as commercial speech, with limited constitutional protection. The case stemmed from press releases and letters to the editor issued by Nike in response to charges about its labor practices in developing countries.
Concerned that business representatives could be deterred from speaking to the press about a vast array of public issues, a group of media organizations including the New York Times, CNN, CBS, and The Washington Post wrote, “This chilling effect will deprive the public of access to important information and the clash of competing viewpoints that undergirds the First Amendment.
“Extending the definition of commercial speech to corporate statements about publicly debated business operations also is unnecessary. When a business practice becomes a matter of public concern, the media filter and scrutinize potentially misleading corporate speech and place it into context.”
In another brief, a group of businesses including Microsoft, Pfizer and Bank of America called the effect of the California decision “both immediate and grave, threatening all corporate speakers with civil and criminal liability for engaging in protected speech.”
The Council of Public Relations warned that “unless the California Supreme Court’s recent ruling restricting the right of businesses to practice free speech is quickly overturned, the rights of all American companies to speak out freely on issues and to openly and fully inform the public about their products and services will be in severe jeopardy.”
According to Kathy Cripps, president of the Council, “During these times of economic turmoil, and with the crisis of confidence in corporate America, businesses must have the freedom to communicate on every level, to build trust, to engage in public discourse and dialogue, and to exhibit integrity of mission, vision and purpose. If corporations are denied the freedom to take a stand on issues, express opinions, explain their actions and defend themselves when attacked, we will all suffer. This decision has chilling implications for corporations, consumers and our Constitution.”
Like many others, Cripps believes that if the California decision stands, many companies will simply reduce their reporting on social responsibility issues. “If it remains in place, lawyers will begin counseling businesses to withdraw from the public forum rather than risk a lawsuit over a viewpoint expressed in an advertisement or op-ed commentary,” she predicts. “And the public, all of us, will suffer.”