Corporations Aren't People

by Joshua Holland

AlterNet, July 3, 2006,


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 personhood."

"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 leading nowhere.

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 or trusts...


Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.

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