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U.S. Supreme Court

PG&E v. Public Utilities Comm'n, 475 U.S. 1 (1986)

Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. Public Utilities Commission of California

No. 84-1044

Argued October 8, 1985

Decided February 25, 1986

475 U.S. 1


Appellant Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has distributed a newsletter in its monthly billing statements for many years. The newsletter has included political editorials, feature stories on matters of public interest, tips on energy conservation, and information about utility services and bills. Appellee Toward Utility Rate Normalization (TURN), in a ratemaking proceeding before appellee California Public Utilities Commission (Commission), urged the Commission to forbid appellant to use billing envelopes to distribute political editorials, on the ground that appellant's customers should not bear the expense of appellant's own political speech. The Commission decided that the envelope space that appellant had used to disseminate the newsletter was the ratepayers' property, defining this "extra space" as the space left over after including the bill and required notices. In an effort to apportion this "extra space" between appellant and its customers, the Commission permitted TURN to use the "extra space" four times a year to raise funds and to communicate with ratepayers with no limitation except to state that its messages were not those of appellant. Arguing that it had a First Amendment right not to help spread a message with which it disagrees, appellant appealed the Commission's order to the California Supreme Court, which denied discretionary review.

Held: The Commission's decision must be vacated.


JUSTICE POWELL, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE BRENNAN, and JUSTICE O'CONNOR, concluded: chanrobles.com-red

Page 475 U. S. 2

1. The Commission's order impermissibly burdens appellant's affirmative First Amendment rights. Pp. 475 U. S. 9-18.

(a) The order awards access to the billing envelopes only to persons or groups, such as TURN, who disagree with appellant's views as expressed in its newsletter and who oppose appellant in Commission proceedings. Such one-sidedness impermissibly burdens appellant's expression. Appellant must contend with the fact that, whenever it speaks out on a given issue, it may be forced to help disseminate hostile views. Appellant "might well conclude" that, under these circumstances, "the safe course is to avoid controversy," thereby reducing the free flow of information and ideas. Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo, 418 U. S. 241, 418 U. S. 257. Pp. 475 U. S. 10, 475 U. S. 12-15.

(b) The order also impermissibly requires appellant to associate with speech with which appellant may disagree. Appellant may be forced either to appear to agree with TURN's views or to respond. That kind of forced response is antithetical to the free discussion that the First Amendment fosters. For corporations, as for individuals, the choice to speak includes within it the choice of what not to say. Tornillo, supra, at 418 U. S. 258. Pp. 475 U. S. 10-11, 475 U. S. 15-17.

(c) The Commission's determination that the envelopes' "extra space" belongs to the ratepayers does not correct the order's constitutional deficiency. The billing envelopes remain appellant's property. Under the order, appellant must use that property to disseminate views with which it disagrees. Pp. 475 U. S. 17-18.

2. The order is neither a narrowly tailored means of serving a compelling state interest nor a permissible time, place, or manner regulation. Pp. 475 U. S. 19-20.

JUSTICE MARSHALL concluded that the State, pursuant to the Commission's order, has redefined a property right in the "extra space" in appellant's billing envelopes in such a way as to achieve a result -- burdening one party's speech in order to enhance another party's speech -- that the First Amendment disallows. PruneYard Shopping Center v. Robins, 447 U. S. 74, distinguished. Pp. 475 U. S. 21-26.

POWELL, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which BURGER, C.J.,and BRENNAN and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J.,filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 475 U. S. 21. MARSHALL, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 475 U. S. 21. REHNQUIST, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in Part I of which WHITE and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 475 U. S. 26. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 475 U. S. 35. BLACKMUN, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case. chanrobles.com-red

Page 475 U. S. 4


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