March 31, 2021

ESG: SEC Rulemaking Could Draw “First Amendment” Challenge

That was fast. Only a couple of weeks ago, Acting SEC Chair Allison Herren Lee gave a speech and issued a corresponding request for public comment on 15 aspects of climate change disclosure. Hunton Andrews Kurth’s Scott Kimpel alerted us that West Virginia’s Attorney General promptly responded with this letter to threaten a First Amendment lawsuit if the SEC adopts rules that require ESG disclosure.

The letter says the “strict scrutiny” framework applies to speech “compelled” by the government – and concludes that the SEC disclosure rules wouldn’t pass muster. The AG rests that conclusion on the theory that ESG info isn’t financially material and is merely meeting investor “demand.” Here’s an excerpt:

Strict scrutiny is the highest First Amendment standard and imposes three requirements. First, the regulation must advance a compelling government interest; second, it must be directly and substantially related to advancing that end; third, it must use the least restrictive means. See United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc., 529 U.S. 803, 813 (2000). This is a high bar for the government, and it is the “rare case[]” in which a regulation “withstands strict scrutiny.” Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar, 575 U.S. 433, 444 (2015).

In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, the Court held that strict scrutiny applies to the type of content ­based speech regulation at issue here. 576 U.S. 155, 159 (2015). According to Justice Breyer, the holding in Reed “inevitably involve[s]” the “governmental regulation of securities.” Id. at 177. In NIFLA v. Becerra, the Court again applied strict scrutiny in a case dealing directly with compelled speech. 138 S. Ct. 2361, 2365-66 (2018). And most recently in an opinion by Justice Kavanaugh, the Court reaffirmed the same standard. Barr v. Am. Ass ‘n of Political Consultants, Inc., 140 S. Ct. 2335, 2346 (2020) ( citing Reed for its holding that “content-based laws are subject to strict scrutiny”). Concurring in part and dissenting in part in that case, Justice Breyer again remarked that this affects “the regulation of securities sales” because, “the regulatory spheres in which the Securities and Exchange Commission … operate[s]” is “defined by content.” Barr at 2360.

First Amendment strict scrutiny is an unmistakable roadblock for your proposal because merely meeting a “demand” for company statements is not a compelling government interest. And while protecting investors from fraud and deceptive practices in the issuance and trading of public securities will likely be held to be a compelling government interest, it is highly unlikely courts will find requiring statements of the kind you propose to directly and substantially serve that end. Moreover, the Commission would be hard-pressed to demonstrate that mandating companies to issue statements regarding environmental, social, and governance matters which are not material to future financial performance constitutes the least-restrictive means for investors to obtain such information. Private competition for customers and investors already leads companies to issue statements on a wide variety of matters of public interest without government compulsion.

It would be preferable for you and the Commission to recognize now that the First Amendment stands in the way of the plans you outlined. If not, these issues will be raised during rulemakings that proceed down this path.

It’s not too surprising to see a threat like this, given the fact that everything these days has become so politically charged. And remember, a First Amendment challenge was successful against the conflict minerals rule.

However, it’s bold to make a preemptive threat on behalf of the citizens of West Virginia before we can even assess whether proposed rules are appropriately tailored. Especially when we hear from companies that they want more certainty for information demands – and investors (including retail investors) are saying they want protection & accuracy when investing in ESG funds & indexes.

What’s clear is that both supporters and detractors will be gearing up for legal battles if rules materialize, and the Constitutional interpretation will land with the courts. That means we’ll probably be dealing with ambiguities in the “ESG disclosure” realm for quite a while.

“Responsible” Investors: Better to Engage Than Divest?

We’ve blogged several times about investor divestment initiatives – and pressure on big asset managers to eliminate fossil fuel companies from their portfolios. That’s a pretty blunt tool to use to effect social change – and recent research says it might not be as effective as engagement. Here’s an excerpt:

This paper is an attempt to analyze the welfare implications of two traditional strategies aimed at shaping corporate outcomes: exit and voice. To make the problem tractable we have made a number of simplifying assumptions: identical firms with zero marginal cost up to a capacity constraint, a linear demand curve, constant absolute risk aversion, normal distribution, etc. We have also studied the three principal socially responsible strategies, divestment, boycotting and engagement, separately, without considering how they might interact with each other.

Subject to these limitations, we find that in a competitive world exit is less effective than voice in pushing firms to act in a socially responsible manner. Our conclusion is consistent with Kruger et al.’s (2020) survey of institutional investors, which finds that such investors consider engagement, rather than divestment, to be the better approach for addressing an externality such as climate risk. Furthermore, we show that individual incentives to join an exit strategy are not necessarily aligned with the social incentive, while they are when investors are allowed to express their voice.

We have derived these results under the best possible scenario for the exit strategies: investors and consumers who can announce their strategies to the world and commit to them. If we relax these assumptions, exit becomes even less effective.

The authors go on to note that company-by-company engagement is also a better alternative than regulatory efforts – because it’s more flexible, cost-effective and “less prone to capture than political voice.” The authors note, however, that the US proxy system tends to limit shareholders’ ability to influence corporate policy and makes engagement less effective – and of course, engagement isn’t very effective at controlled and privately held companies.

Transcript: “Conduct of the Annual Meeting”

If you’re preparing for your shareholder meeting right now, make sure to check out the transcript from our recent webcast: “Conduct of the Annual Meeting.” Crown Castle’s Masha Blankenship, AIG’s Rose Marie Glazer, Rocket Companies’ Tina V. John, American Election Services’ Christel Pauli and Oracle’s Kimberly Woolley gave practice pointers on meeting format & logistics, voting tabulations, “rules of conduct” and other helpful topics.

Liz Dunshee