Friday, June 10, 2022
Sean Griffith on Whether the SEC's Proposed ESG Disclosure Regime Violates the First Amendment
There have been number of recent BLPB posts representing a diversity of viewpoints concerning the SEC's proposed rule to "Enhance and Standardize Climate-Related Disclosures for Investors". For example, co-blogger Joan MacLeod Heminway recently posted on a comment letter drafted by Jill E. FIsch, George S. Georgiev, Donna Nagy, and Cynthia A. WIlliams (and signed by Joan and 24 others) that affirms the proposed rule is within the SEC's rulemaking authority. I have offered a couple posts raising concerns about the proposed rule from the standpoint of utility and legal authority (see here and here). One of the concerns I have raised is that the SEC's proposed disclosure regime may compel corporate speech in a manner that runs afoul of the First Amendment. SEC Commissioner Hester Pierce raised this same concern, and now Professor Sean J. Griffith has posted a new article, "What's 'Controversial' About ESG? A Theory of Compelled Commercial Speech under the First Amendment", which offers a more comprehensive treatment of this problem. Professor Griffith has also submitted a comment letter to the SEC raising this issue. Here's the abstract for Professor Griffith's article:
This Article uses the SEC’s recent foray into ESG to illuminate ambiguities in First Amendment doctrine. Situating mandatory disclosure regulations within the compelled commercial speech paradigm, it identifies the doctrinal hinge as “controversy.” Rules compelling commercial speech receive deferential judicial review provided they are purely factual and uncontroversial. The Article argues that this requirement operates as a pretext check, preventing regulators from exceeding the plausible limits of the consumer protection rationale.
Applied to securities regulation, the compelled commercial speech paradigm requires the SEC to justify disclosure mandates as a form of investor protection. The Article argues that investor protection must be conceived on a class basis—the interests of investors qua investors rather than focusing on the idiosyncratic preferences of individuals or groups of investors. Disclosure mandates that are uncontroversially motivated to protect investors are eligible for deferential judicial review. Disclosure mandates failing this test must survive a form of heightened scrutiny.
The SEC’s recently proposed climate disclosure rules fail to satisfy these requirements. Instead, the proposed climate rules create controversy by imposing a political viewpoint, by advancing an interest group agenda at the expense of investors generally, and by redefining concepts at the core of securities regulation. Having created controversy, the proposed rules are ineligible for deferential judicial review. Instead, a form of heightened scrutiny applies, under which they will likely be invalidated. Much of the ESG agenda would suffer the same fate, as would a small number of existing regulations, such as shareholder proposals under Rule 14a-8. However, the vast majority of the SEC’s disclosure mandates, which aim at eliciting only financially relevant information, would survive.