Corporate Rights Are Our Rights

Kudos to Milwaukee County Supervisor Chris Abele for vetoing the Milwaukee County Board’s attempt to put a referendum on the ballot calling for an end to corporate personhood.

The 14 members of the Board who voted for it* and the liberal groups supporting it** are either (a) completely ignorant of basic constitutional principles, or (b) perfectly aware of how incredibly dangerous such a change would be, yet willing to pander to how ignorant they perceive their constituents to be.

As reported in the County’s press release, the resolution would have asked “whether the U.S. Constitution should be amended to establish that only human beings, not corporations, are entitled to constitutional rights, and money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.”

Let’s focus on the first part of that*** – stripping corporations of constitutional rights.  What effect would that have?

  1. Nearly all major news organizations are organized as corporations.  Having lost all their constitutional rights, they would now be subject to complete and utter government censorship and control.  Any government – federal, state, or local, could ban all publication of any newspaper, shut down any TV news broadcast, prohibit political endorsements, or even dictate exactly what they said.
  2. Most religious institutions are organized as corporations.  The Constitution currently protects not only individuals’ freedom of religion, but religious institutions’ freedom of religion.  That would be thrown out the window if those corporate religious institutions had no rights.  Don’t like Mormonism?  Scientology?  Christianity?  Shut down their churches.  Politicians could regulate worship services anyway they liked.
  3. The Constitution gives people the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.  Generally speaking, cops need a warrant in most circumstances to search your home – or your business (at least after hours or in places not open to the public).  But what if we take constitutional rights away from corporations?  The police could search any corporation’s property at any time, for any reason (or no reason at all) with impunity.
  4. The Constitution also says that government can only take our life, liberty, or property by using due process of law.  Except if a corporation has no constitutional rights, government can take corporate property at any time, with no due process, without compensation.  Government could also revoke corporate charters (the “life” of the corporation) at any time, for any reason, without due process.
  5. Nonprofit organizations are corporations.  Would you want the Sierra Club, the NRA, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Americans United for Life, and every other nonprofit advocacy group stripped of the right to speak on their issues of concern?  Subject to destruction by politicians who disagree?
  6. Unions (both public and private) are corporations.  They would be subject to all the same abuses listed above.
  7. PACs themselves – the basic political organizations “not affiliated with any candidate or candidate’s committee” and subject to the disclosure, registration, and fundraising limitations that “Super PACs” typically aren’t – are corporations as well.  This constitutional amendment would pare back the right to engage in any kind of political advocacy to individuals alone.  Rich individuals have a lot of clout under the current system, yes, but at least people of like minds can pool their resources together to combat the speech they don’t like with more speech.  That pooling would become a lot more difficult – if not completely impossible – should corporations be stripped of their right to speak on political matters.

Think I’m exaggerating?  Take a look at Move to Amend’s website, which explicitly lists the rights it doesn’t want corporations to have, including 1st amendment (free speech, free religion), 4th amendment (being free from unreasonable search and seizure) 5th amendment (due process, takings without compensation), 14th amendment (due process and equal protection), commerce clause, and contracts clause rights.

What’s really scary is any level of government would be able to exercise this tyranny over corporate entities.  Have you seen how petty, controlling, and vindictive the governing boards of some small towns (and even bigger villages and cities) can get?  Is that really the kind of power you want to put in the hands of government officials?  For people who fear what Republicans might do to unions, this should be particularly frightening.

This amendment isn’t about the rights of corporations per se.  It’s about the rights of individuals to join together in a corporate form without losing their constitutional rights.  People joining together as corporations are still people.  I would never willingly give up those rights, and I hope better education will help people understand that by supporting such a constitutional amendment they are stripping themselves of many, many rights.

People don’t like a lot of the political speech they see.  I completely agree – most political ads are awful – and the further an ad is removed from the candidate her- or himself, the more awful it tends to be.  But the solution to speech you don’t like isn’t to ban that speech – it’s to engage in more speech.  Whatever happened to “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”?

For more scholarly consideration of such “people’s rights” amendments, see here, here, here, and here.

*          Chair Marina Dimitijevic, Deanna Alexander, David Bowen, Gerry Broderick, David Cullen, Jason Haas, Nikiya Harris, Willie Johnson, Patricia Jursik, Michael Mayo Sr., Peggy Romo West, Joe Sanfelippo, Russell Stamper II, John Weishan, Jr.

**        For example, United Wisconsin, People for the American Way, Move to Amend

***      Giving government the power to ban people from spending money to spread their message brings its own set of problems.

Share This