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Pacific Gas and Electric Company v. Public Utilities Commission of California

    Citation. 22 Ill.475 U.S. 1, 106 S. Ct. 903, 89 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1986)

    Brief Fact Summary. A third party public interest group filed a complaint with the Respondent, the Public Utilities Commission of California (Respondent), against the Petitioner, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (Petitioner), seeking access to its billing envelopes as a vehicle to express its own political viewpoints. Petitioner sought appeal, alleging that a mandate to open its property to the use of another was an abrogation of its First Amendment Constitutional Rights.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The owner of private property cannot be compelled to create a forum for alternative viewpoints, merely because he uses his own property to express his own views.


    Facts. The Petitioner distributed a newsletter in its monthly billing envelope. The newsletter expressed political views of the company, along with public interest stories and tips regarding energy conservation. In 1980, Toward Utility Rate Normalization (TURN), a public interest group urged the Respondent, to forbid the Petitioner from disseminating the newsletter, or, alternatively, to allow TURN to also use the space to express its views. The Respondent allowed TURN access to the envelopes and the Petitioner appealed. The California Supreme Court denied review, and the United States Supreme Court (Supreme Court) Granted Certiorari.

    Issue. The issue in this case is whether the Respondent can require a privately owned company, the Petitioner, to allow a third party to have access to its billing envelopes.

    Held. Justice Lewis Powell (J. Powell). Reversed.
    Following Consolidated Edison (supra), the Supreme Court held that the Petitioner was free to express its own political viewpoints through its envelopes and that doing so was protected by its First Amendment Rights. The Supreme Court went on to hold that compelling access to another’s property suppresses that person from expressing himself and forces the speaker to alter its speech to accommodate for the other party.
    The Supreme Court based its holding both in the First Amendment rights of the Petitioner and in its right to use its own property, pursuant to the notion of due process.

    Dissent. Judge William Rehnquist (J. Rehnquist) dissented, noting that the right of access to the envelopes does not prevent the Petitioner from disseminating its own ideas, rather it suppresses the ideas of another. J. Rehnquist also notes that a public utility (albeit privately owned) is not a natural person and should not be afforded the same constitutional interest that is given to individuals.
    Justice John Paul Stevens (J. Stevens) found that because the Respondent could statutorily mandate Petitioner to carry its own message to customers, it should not be prevented from determining that the message of another party may also be worth merit.
    Concurrence. Justice Thurgood Marshall (J. Marshall) concurred, noting that the Petitioner had never allowed its envelopes to be used as a public forum and thus they were private property and not subject to First Amendment rights.

    Discussion. The important consideration in this case is the fact that the envelopes, in themselves, were Petitioner’s property. Because Consolidated Edison had already stood for the proposition that Petitioner could use his property as he sees fit, he could not later be compelled to allow another party to also use his property as a vehicle for expression.


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