End corporate personhood
Corporate personhood is a difficult and complex subject to understand. The question of what rights can be claimed by corporations dates back as far as 1819 (right to make contracts) and 1886 (Fourteenth Amendment).
There is a recent development in corporate personhood that is particularly troubling. Until recently, there were limits on the political speech of corporations at election time. Under a recent change in the law, corporations have the same First Amendment rights as a person, and will be able to produce TV, radio and press adverts to sell us the politicians favored by the corporation.
In January 2010 the Supreme Court ruled on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Citizens United is a conservative non-profit organization.
The case challenged a law called the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), also known as the “McCain-Feingold” law. This law barred all corporations, both for-profit and non-profit, and unions from broadcasting “electioneering communications”, defined as a broadcast, cable, or satellite communication that mentions a candidate within 60 days of a general election or thirty days of a primary.
The ruling was that this prohibition was invalid since the First Amendment prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech. It also noted that since there was no way to distinguish between media and other corporations, the McCain-Feingold law would allow Congress to suppress political speech in newspapers, books, television and blogs.
In effect the court decided that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as people.
A dissenting opinion by four of the nine Supreme Court judges argued that the court had ruled on a question not brought before it by the litigants, and so claimed that the majority of the Supreme Court judges “changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.”
The dissent concluded with: “… the Court’s opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. It is a strange time to repudiate that common sense. While American democracy is imperfect, few outside the majority of this Court would have thought its flaws included a dearth of corporate money in politics.”
We fear that First Amendment rights for corporations will allow their political speech to dominate over the voices of individuals. Corporations already wallow in an excess of economic power: they choose what products to develop, where to make them, how to price them and how to sell them. They use their bargaining advantage to drive hard deals for wages, working conditions, raw material and component prices. At election time, we do not want our politicians packaged and sold to us like a mobile phone, fizzy beverage or prescription medicine.