What’s “Controversial” About ESG? A Theory of Compelled Commercial Speech under the First Amendment

73 Pages Posted: 31 May 2022

See all articles by Sean J. Griffith

Sean J. Griffith

Fordham University School of Law; European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI)

Date Written: May 24, 2022

Abstract

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.

Keywords: ESG, climate, SEC, securities regulation, First Amendment, commercial speech, compelled speech, investor protection, controversy, climate risk, disclosure, mandate

JEL Classification: K2, K22, K23, K32

Suggested Citation

Griffith, Sean J., What’s “Controversial” About ESG? A Theory of Compelled Commercial Speech under the First Amendment (May 24, 2022). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4118755 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4118755

Sean J. Griffith (Contact Author)

Fordham University School of Law ( email )

150 West 62nd Street
New York, NY 10023
United States

European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI) ( email )

c/o the Royal Academies of Belgium
Rue Ducale 1 Hertogsstraat
1000 Brussels
Belgium

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