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Tell me again why corporations are persons, and so should have free speech rights?

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Insanely, the Bush Court decided yesterday that they wouldn't protect us from corporations buying elections because corporations have First Amendment Rights just like living, breathing human beings do. Federal Election Comm’n v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc. (PDF):

Moreover, pre-Buckley cases had accorded corporations full First Amendment protec- tion. See, e.g., NAACP v. Button, 371 U. S. 415, 428–429, 431 (1963) (holding that the corporation’s activities were “modes of expression and association protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments”); Grosjean v. Ameri- can Press Co., 297 U. S. 233, 244 (1936) (holding that corporations are guaranteed the “freedom of speech and of the press . . . safeguarded by the due process of law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment”). See also Pacific Gas & Elec. Co. v. Public Util. Comm’n of Cal., 475 U. S. 1, 8 (1986) (plurality opinion) ("The identity of the speaker is not decisive in determining whether speech is protected"; "[c]orporations and other associations, like individuals, contribute to the 'discussion, debate, and the dissemination of information and ideas' that the First Amendment seeks to foster"). Indeed, one would have thought the coup de grace to the argument that corporations can be treated differently for these purposes was dealt by First Nat. Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U. S. 765 (1978), decided just two years after Buckley. As the Court explained: The principle that such advocacy is "at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection" and is "indispensable to decisionmaking in a democracy" is "no less true because the speech comes from a corporation rather than an individual."

Well, this really is insane. I don't mean that the doctrine that a corporation is a person isn't settled law; it is. But does that make it sane?

I mean, if a Martian anthropologist came down to study us, and saw that we treated imaginary, social constructs that we ourselves created the same way we treated living, breathing, loving human beings... Well, they'd either throw up their tentacles in despair or start doing whatever it is that Martians do when they're hysterical with laughter.

When I can sit down and have a beer or a bong hit for Jeebus with a corporation, then it's a person just like me.

Now, I know that this area of the law is riddled with cranks and tax loons and all the winger crazies and a lot of marginalized people. That's fine; change starts at the margins, at the bounds of discourse outside the Overton Window. So, I was Googling around on this topic, and ran across this metaphor:

Slavery is the legal fiction that a Person is Property.

Corporate Personhood is the legal fiction that Property is a Person.

I rather like that.

Shouldn't we be talking more about this issue? Emerson wrote>:

Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind.

There are two laws discrete
Not reconciled,
Law for man, and law for thing;
The last builds town and fleet,
But it runs wild,
And doth the man unking.

Yeah, yeah, some sexist language.

But the Bush Court just tightened the corporate saddle on me, and I'm not sure I like that at all.

NOTE And if corporations are persons, why can't we apply the death penalty to them if they murder people--as they often do.

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I mean, if a Martian anthropologist came down to study us, and saw that we treated imaginary, social constructs that we ourselves created the same way we treated living, breathing, loving human beings…

If they're really imaginary social constructs, shouldn't we stop fixating on them, and instead look through them at the people pushing their buttons and pulling their levers? Maybe social constructs don't have rights, but people have rights. In which case, extending free-speech rights to corporations is just a way of ensuring that their owners (or officers, if you accept that there are agency problems) get to exercise their free-speech rights.

I just sayin'.

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

"In which case, extending free-speech rights to corporations is just a way of ensuring that their owners (or officers, if you accept that there are agency problems) get to exercise their free-speech rights."

That's right, becasue (as everyone knows) when you are an officer or "owner" of a corporation, you become incapable of excercising your free speech rights without the help of coroproate resources.

Of all the arguments for corporate personhood, this one is the silliest. Given the huge amount of resources available to many corporations, and the complete inability to hold them accountable in any meaningful way (unlike real flesh-and-blood people), corporations have even MORE "free speech" than regular folks.

Let's not forget the twofold purposes of corporations: as engines of economic production and to shield corporate "owners" from liability for corporate actions.

There was a day when corporate charters routine included a couple of rules: to operate in a way that in beneficial to society, and to stay out of politics. Corporations could (and often were) lose their charter for violating these conditions.

I, for one, would like to see us return to that wise tradition. As it is now, the balance of power is so much in favor of these legal fictions that we have effectively become a corporatocracy -- and the rights of everyday (real) citizens suffer as a result.

Look, I actually disagree with the Supreme Court's decision here, to the extent that I actually know about it. But I disagree with it not because I believe that corporations aren't people, but because I believe that corporations and people alike should be limited in their ability to spend money to affect the political process. If you want to look through social constructs here, better to start with the notion that giving large sums of money to someone else is speech. The law recognizes the difference between the two at other times. If you say nice words to your Congressman, no one will accuse you of bribery.