As my Competitive Enterprise Institute colleague Hans Bader and I have written in blog posts, articles, and regulatory comments, the conflict disclosure mandate creates a compliance nightmare, hurts American miners and manufacturers, and does the greatest harm to those it was intended to help — the struggling worker in and nearby the Democratic Republic of Congo. ...
Fighting violence in the Congo is a laudable goal, but it defies common sense and basic civics to pursue foreign-policy objectives through a banking and investment bill. The government entity charged with enforcing this provision is neither the State Department nor the Defense Department, but rather the Securities and Exchange Commission — which no one would call an agency well-schooled in the nuances of foreign policy.
The Court looked at this leap of logic and decided that the provision could not survive the First Amendment’s prohibition against “compelled speech,” even under the lesser standard for “commercial speech.” As Judge A. Raymond Randolph wrote in the majority opinion, this compelled speech is not even “reasonably related” to the SEC’s mission of “preventing consumer deception.” The opinion concludes, “By compelling an issuer [publicly-traded company] to confess blood on its hands, the statute interferes with that exercise of the freedom of speech under the First Amendment.”
I agree with much of what Berlau says, although I would caution that I read the majority opinion as making a rather narrow ruling:
This brings us to the Association’s First Amendment claim. The Association challenges only the requirement that an issuer describe its products as not “DRC conflict free” in the report it files with the Commission and must post on its website. ... That requirement, according to the Association, unconstitutionally compels speech. ...
Specifically, the Commission argues that issuers can explain the meaning of “conflict free” in their own terms. But the right to explain compelled speech is present in almost every such case and is inadequate to cure a First Amendment violation. See Nat’l Ass’n of Mfrs., 717 F.3d at 958. Even if the option to explain minimizes the First Amendment harm, it does not eliminate it completely. Without any evidence that alternatives would be less effective, we still cannot say that the restriction here is narrowly tailored.
We therefore hold that 15 U.S.C. § 78m(p)(1)(A)(ii) & (E), and the Commission’s final rule, 56 Fed. Reg. at 56,362-65, violate the First Amendment to the extent the statute and rule require regulated entities to report to the Commission and to state on their website that any of their products have “not been found to be ‘DRC conflict free.’”14
14 The requirement that an issuer use the particular descriptor “not been found to be ‘DRC conflict free’” may arise as a result of the Commission’s discretionary choices, and not as a result of the statute itself. We only hold that the statute violates the First Amendment to the extent that it imposes that description requirement. If the description is purely a result of the Commission’s rule, then our First Amendment holding leaves the statute itself unaffected.
It seems to me that that court left the SEC (and Congress) a lot of room to go back and adopt new conflict mineral disclosure rules. Such rules would be a bad idea, but they could doubtless be crafted to pass constitutional muster. After all, the whole SEC disclosure apparatus regulates speech and nobody with any sense thinks federal courts are ever going to strike down that apparatus as a violation of the First Amendment.