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Friday, Oct 31, 2014
Commentary

Shutting down corporate speech in name of social justice?

Special to The Tampa Tribune
Published:

Corporate boardrooms are being caught up in a new wave of religious fervor sparked by clergy and members of religious orders in search of social justice. Alas, this movement is only superficially about the spirit. In truth, corporate directors and company executives are facing a very worldly missionary effort by priests, pastors, nuns and laypersons armed with proxy shareholder resolutions that advance politically liberal dogmas, including attempts to undermine the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling.

Recruiting people of faith to this cause accomplishes little more than dressing leftist ideology in church vestments. In the Tampa Bay area, District of Columbia and Maryland, the Sisters of St. Francis, the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes and the Province of St. Joseph of the Capuchin Order are aiming shareholder resolutions at companies such as J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman and Altria Group Inc.

The nuns and friars submitting the proxy resolutions are members of the New York City-based Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, which, for the past 41 years, has established itself as “the pioneer coalition of active shareowners who view the management of their investments as a catalyst to promote justice and sustainability in the world.” The ICCR’s view of “justice and sustainability,” however, seems less grounded in Christian doctrine than talking points from MSNBC.

These resolutions, not surprisingly, list the amount of money spent by each company on “direct federal lobbying” using figures taken from Senate reports. What seems to upset the religious activists, or actually ICCR, is the lack of disclosure of “lobbying expenditures to influence legislation in states,” including “trade association payments” and “membership in tax-exempt organizations that write and endorse model legislation, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council.”

Last time I checked, freely expressed speech was a treasured democratic asset for political and religious actors. Subsequent to the Citizens United decision, one might even attach the sobriquet “justice” to the freedoms that Lockheed Martin, Altria and Northrop Grumman enjoy, including making contributions to ALEC.

In other words, encouraging boards of directors ”to require comprehensive disclosure related to direct, indirect and grassroots lobbying” efforts as noted in the ICCR proxy resolutions derives from the desire to publicly shame the corporations in question for supporting groups that advocate in their best interests. Ultimately, the goal is to end these relationships altogether. Is this not an injustice, by any measure?

Because groups such as ALEC lean toward drafting free-market, lighter regulatory policy solutions, it can only be surmised that ICCR simply wants to shut down one side of the discourse with which it disagrees. In this alternate universe, justice apparently denotes big-government oversight of all aspects related to corporate speech, including the contents of that speech.

There indeed exist many valid reasons for assuring the privacy of corporate donations to advocacy groups such as ALEC, which has been a major target of liberal/progressive critics. From the corporate side, the effects of these shareholder campaigns could lead to companies severing all connections with ALEC and other advocacy groups working on their behalf. And, indeed, this has happened with companies such as General Motors and Walmart, which cut their ties to the organization.

Shutting down discourse is justice denied. If the proxy shareholder resolutions put forth by ICCR members and other groups are successful, corporations will lose powerful voices that speak on their behalf. But the biggest losers will be the people who benefit most from the shareholder-targeted companies that provide employment opportunities, engage in philanthropic efforts and pay taxes to the communities to which they belong.  

By all means, those groups represented by the ICCR should exercise the freedom to express their opinions on any number of issues. But we as Americans — and especially religious leaders — should champion freedom of speech in all its guises rather than support efforts to stifle it.


Bruce Edward Walker, a Michigan-based writer, writes frequently on the arts and other topics for the Acton Institute, which promotes a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.

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