Corporations are not people

Home 2009 Archive Corporations are not people

by Paul Smith

The collusion of big business and government has swelled to glutinous proportions in this country. Over $1 billion was spent on last year’s presidential elections alone, much of that money coming as campaign contributions from individuals with direct ties to corporations and special interest groups.

Ever since the Tillman Act of 1907, corporations have been outlawed from donating money directly to political campaigns, so they have had to do it through individuals and surrogates – but all of that may be about to change.

The Supreme Court is now hearing a case that could dramatically change the way elections are financed in this country.

The current case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission will potentially decide once and for all whether corporations have a constitutional right to donate money to campaigns.

The brouhaha started when Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit organization, tried to run television ads for “Hilary: The Movie,” a scathing documentary critical of Hilary Clinton.

However, these commercials violated current campaign finance provisions under the McCain-Feingold Act and were not allowed to be broadcast, prompting Citizens United to sue the Federal Election Commission.

Attorney Ted Olson, representing Citizens United, laid the basis for the case when he argued before the court, “Corporations are persons entitled to protections under the First Amendment.”

And he is correct – partly. Under current laws, corporations are considered to be legal persons with limited constitutional protections.

This idea that corporations are people has legal precedent which dates back to the 1886 Supreme Court case Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company. Many cite this case as the legal framework for corporate personhood.

Only there’s one problem: this case did not rule on such a thing at all.

Before giving the ruling for this case, Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite made an off-the-record remark suggesting that the court believed that corporations were entitled to equal protection under the 14th Amendment, yet his comment was not part of the official decision.

But the court reporter at the time, J.C. Bancroft Davis (a former president of a railroad company), recorded the quote in the syllabus of the case history, and this off-the-cuff remark has been cited as legal precedent ever since.

And that’s how much of history is decided, folks – by whoever writes it down first, regardless of whether it’s accurate.

Alas, after this case, corporations were considered people and were given many constitutional protections previously only available to actual living, breathing people.

Enter this current Supreme Court case, and now Citizens United claims that it is a legal corporate person that deserves free speech under the First Amendment.

Free speech – but how can a corporation speak?  A corporation can only speak one way – with money. But money isn’t speech, is it?

According to another Supreme Court case, yes, it is.

In 1976, in the case Buckley v. Valeo, the court decided that not only is money a form of speech, but spending money to influence elections is protected under the First Amendment – however, at this time, the court was only talking about real people spending money, not corporations.

And now the Supreme Court must decide whether corporations should be allowed to spend money on campaigns in the same way that real people can.

I submit that if the court decides in favor of Citizens United then this country is in serious trouble.

There is no way the average citizen can reasonably compete with the billion dollar coffers of megalithic corporations. Actual people don’t stand a chance against fake corporate people – not to mention that the legal precedent for corporate personhood is dubious at best.

If the court decides the wrong way, this will be the final nail in the coffin for allowing big business and government to merge into one grotesque, rapacious, horrifying beast – and we can’t let it happen.

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