What are people?

Occupy protesters and progressive politicians call for end to corporate personhood

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Occupy activists stand in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to demand and end to corporate personhood
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY LUKE THOMAS

Protesters from the Occupy movement and beyond gathered in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on Jan. 20, calling for the adoption of a 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution aimed at refuting the idea that corporations should have the same rights as people, a legal doctrine know as corporate personhood.

The event was part of a day of action at courthouses around the country, seeking to raise public awareness about the unfettered influence of corporate money in U.S. elections and draw attention to the second anniversary of the landmark corporate personhood decision by U.S. Supreme Court, Citizens United vs the Federal Elections Commission.

"We are here not to protest, not to petition, and not to plead, but to proclaim a truth that should be self evident, even to the Supreme Court: Corporations are not people; money is not speech," said Abraham Entin, of North Bay Move To Amend, addressing a crowd gathered at the courthouse. "Corporations work very hard to convince us that we cannot do without them and the products they produce. They tell us they are too big to fail, and that our survival is dependent on their survival ... Occupy has changed all that."

In a contentious 5-4 ruling handed down on Jan. 21, 2010, the Citizens United case solidified the legal framework that bequeaths corporations the same rights under the Constitution as real, living, breathing, U.S. citizens, and by merit of their First Amendment rights as citizens bars any restrictions placed on a corporation's ability to spend money to influence elections.

When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously said on the campaign trail that "corporations are people, my friend, because corporations have people inside them," he is reflecting the logic of the majority opinion in the Citizens United case. The court's majority asserted that corporations are essentially an association of people and thus enjoy the same rights as individuals.

The court also claimed that it is impossible to distinguish between the corporate media outlets and other corporate speech, so all corporations should enjoy the free speech rights saved for the press. Furthermore, because journalists often have to spend money to achieve speech, money spent on messaging by all corporations represents protected speech.

Corporations, a relatively modern invention, aren't actually discussed in the Constitution. But the notion of corporation personhood began around 1886 in the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. What Citizens United did was equate corporate money spent to influence elections with protected political speech, upending attempts at election reforms and gutting the McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 that regulated federal election campaigns.

That corporations act to corrupt our democratic systems for their own profit is not conspiracy, it's simply a byproduct of what they are. Corporations are legally obligated to act to maximize their profits for the benefit of their shareholders, otherwise their board and corporate officers are considered negligent of their obligations to their shareholders' financial interests. Unlike journalists, whose professional credo calls for fairness and acting in the public interest, corporations are designed to act in their own interests.

As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the dissenting judges in Citizens United, "Corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their 'personhood' often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of 'We the People' by whom and for whom our Constitution was established."

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