What’s Good for General Motors: Corporate Speech and the Theory of Free Expression

Howard Wasserman, Florida International University College of Law
Martin H. Redish, Northwestern University School of Law


When Charles Wilson, president of General Motors and President Eisenhower's nominee to be Secretary of Defense, in 1953 boldly asserted that "what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,"' he was subjected to intense ridicule and criticism in certain political and intellectual circles for simplistically and greedily equating his company'sown private economic concerns with those of the national interest. To be sure, Wilson was espousing a controversial-albeit venerable-political and economic theory that draws no distinction between the interests of the private and public spheres. The indisputability of the intersection between governmental and corporate interests renders puzzling the views of numerous scholars that the expression of profitmaking corporations is either completely undeserving of First Amendment protection or entitled to only a limited or reduced level of free speech protection, even on subjects of central concern to the governing process.

The first part of this article briefly describes the doctrinal development of the current Supreme Court position on corporate speech. It will demonstrate that, although the doctrinal messages sent by the Court undoubtedly have been mixed, the modern trend appears unmistakably away from extending full-fledged constitutional protection to corporate speech. In the second part, the article makes the theoretical case for the constitutional protection of corporate speech from both the positive and negative perspectives of First Amendment theory. The final part will respond to the theories that support the total exclusion of corporate speech from the scope of the constitutional guarantee. It will conclude that none of these theories in any way justifies such exclusion.