In a dangerous interpretation of sordid case history, activist Supreme Courts and corporate lawyers have appropriated the rights guaranteed to natural people and given them to corporations. The recent Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election commission case applies the First Amendment right of free speech to allow any corporation to use as much money as they want to influence U.S. elections through campaign ads. This is simply another step in a long history of corporations usurping natural rights. I will not argue here that corporations are undeserving of all of these rights, but merely that the process by which it was accomplished has been undemocratic and risks undermining the very foundation of our nation.
It all started during the Industrial Revolution, when it became necessary to create “legal persons” such as corporations so that groups of people could join together to create larger entities to fulfill purposes that they could not complete on their own. The first major step toward extending all rights of natural-born citizens to corporations took place during the 1889 Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad case when, in his summary of the case, a court clerk (and former railroad executive) wrote “the court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution … applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.” This idea was never addressed in the ruling, but readings of this summary were nonetheless used as the basis for later decisions. The 14th Amendment, which was ratified after the Civil War in order to guarantee equal protection to all citizens, was thus interpreted as giving corporations the rights of natural persons under the Constitution. Again, this is not to say that corporations are not deserving of rights such as the Fourth Amendment right to protection from unreasonable search and seizure, but rather that the method they have taken to obtain these rights is fundamentally undemocratic. We have not had an honest debate in this country about what the extent of corporate rights should be because they have simply taken the rights of people. This gets dangerous when they begin to expand these rights as in the recent ruling that gives corporations the right to spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertisements.
The whole point of a corporation is to create a separate entity with limited liability and different rights and responsibilities than ordinary citizens. It is not an entity that we can imprison and increasingly we cannot even dissolve corporations that act in a destructive manner. It does not make sense to simply apply the rights of people to these legal entities because they have an entirely different structure and function. Rather, as a nation, we must begin to re-examine the extent of these rights and responsibilities.
Editor’s Note: “Liberal Bias” runs every three weeks and is an opinion column granted by the Editorial Board to the Progressive Students Allience.