Corporations Aren't People
by Joshua Holland
AlterNet, July 3, 2006, http://www.alternet.org/
Largely lost amid last week's Supreme
Court rulings limiting President Bush's imperial powers and upholding
Texas Republicans' 2003 gerrymandering was a decision that put
the kibosh on Vermont's campaign finance and spending laws --
the strictest in the nation by far.
The justices, in a 6-3 decision, ruled
that the limits were unconstitutional according to the standard
set out in the landmark 1976 case, Buckley v. Valeo, which held
that spending millions of dollars to get elected is a protected
form of political speech.
The ruling itself was hardly earth shattering;
Vermont's spending limits may well have been too onerous and even
some of the liberal justices expressed concern that the tight
caps gave incumbents an unfair advantage. The court largely maintained
the legal status quo around an issue that's long been the subject
of heated debate.
But the decision reveals yet again how
deeply entrenched the role of big money is in the American political
system. Over the last 150 years, bizarre legal doctrines have
developed that have effectively codified the power of special
interests. In addition to the idea in Buckley that 'money equals
speech,' we've been saddled with the Orwellian concept of "corporate
"Corporate personhood" gives
corporations -- entirely artificial entities created by the state
-- the same individual rights that the framers fought and died
to secure for flesh-and-blood citizens (or at least for white
male property-holders, but you get the idea). The doctrine started
in England reasonably enough; it was only by considering corporations
"persons" that they could be taken to court and sued.
But during the 19th century, the Robber Barons and a few corrupt
jurists deep in their pockets took the concept to a whole new
level. After the Civil War, while many of those same interests
were fighting to keep African Americans from being enfranchised,
the doctrine took on new weight -- the Equal Protection clause
of the 14th Amendment was extended to corporations, and Thomas
Jefferson slowly rolled over in his grave. The trend of granting
more and more rights to corporations continues today.
As long as these ideas are embedded in
our legal system, talk of cleaning up government -- of campaign
finance and lobby reform -- are just that: talk. On these fundamental
issues of democratic participation, incremental reform is a road
Which is why we need bold, populist ideas
for real structural reform. I say let's rip a page from Karl Rove's
Scorched-Earth Politics for Dummies and offer a progressive Constitutional
Amendment that would end this madness once and for all.
That could be as simple as a one-line
amendment that rolls back Buckley by explicitly stating that regulating
the amount of money donated to campaigns or setting limits on
what candidates spend on advertising isn't the same as putting
limits on political speech.
But I think something even bolder is in
order. I think it's time for a Defense of Human Citizenship Amendment
-- language that would strip the "personhood" from corporations
and give reformers a fighting chance to establish a true democracy
in the United States.
It should be as brief and straightforward
as the Republicans' gay marriage amendment:
SECTION 1. Citizenship in the United States
shall be conferred only on human beings. Neither this Constitution
nor the constitution of any State, nor state or federal law, shall
be construed to require that citizenship or the legal incidents
thereof be granted to corporations, partnerships, proprietorships
Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.