A U.S. Court Jeopardizes Corporate Transparency Rules, in the Name of Free Speech

Transparency is often seen as an important anticorruption tool, perhaps nowhere more than in extractive industries. Notably, an international movement has called on extractive industry firms to “Publish What You Pay” (PWYP). The idea is that if it were public knowledge what these firms had paid for the concessions they receive from governments, the citizens in those countries (as well as journalists, NGOs, and others) would be better able to hold governments accountable for what they did with the money (and would make it harder for governments, or individual government officials, to lie about how much money they received). Many advocates therefore believe that it would be good public policy to enact PWYP rules that would compel these sorts of disclosures. But would such disclosure requirements violate the constitutional principle of freedom of speech? Alas, some U.S. judges seem to think so.

If the whole idea that disclosure requirements of this sort might infringe free speech rights seems bizarre, I’m with you—in my earlier post on this topic, discussing an earlier case that seemed to take this position, I used words like “absurd” and “inane.” Yet last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued a new ruling (a follow-up to the earlier decision I ranted about last year) that seemed to strongly endorse a very broad constitutional protection for corporations against “compelled commercial speech,” which bodes ill. Although the most recent opinion, like the one I posted about last year, does not directly address PWYP mandates, the larger themes of the D.C. Circuit opinion are troubling, and suggest that this court (or at least some judges) may be hostile to the whole idea of using mandatory disclosures as a way to advance important public policy goals, including the fight against corruption. Continue reading

Is It Unconstitutional To Compel Extractive Industry Firms To Publish What They Pay?

Publish What You Pay” (PWYP) is the slogan of the international civil society movement to promote transparency and accountability in the extractive industry sector (oil, gas, minerals, etc.). The idea is to get firms to disclose what they pay to governments, and to get governments to disclose what they receive, in connection with extraction projects. Viewing voluntary programs like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative as insufficient, the PWYP movement has been pressing for mandatory disclosure requirements. But would such requirements violate the right to free speech protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?

That question may seem absurd. Requiring truthful disclosures by commercial firms of payments to foreign governments may or may not be an effective anticorruption measure, but is it even plausible that such requirements would violate the constitutional guarantee of free speech? I think the answer should be no. But alas, as is often the case, it’s not clear that my view is shared by the federal judges who are likely to decide this issue. Indeed, there are worrisome signs that the powerful D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals may endorse an absurdly expansive conception of the First Amendment that would block any effective PWYP mandate. Continue reading