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The Phony “Corporate Rights” Argument Against Citizens United

by @ 3:52 pm on February 4, 2010. Filed under Freedom of Religion, Individual Liberty, U.S. Constitution

Over at Cato at Liberty, Ilya Shapiro  makes an excellent point about the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United and what has turned into the primary leftist attack against it:

The blogosphere has been abuzz on the heels of the Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United opinion. Hysteric criticisms of the speculative changes to our political landscape aside — including the President’s misstatements in the State of the Union — one of the most common and oft-repeated criticisms is that the Constitution does not protect corporations. Several “reform” groups have even drafted and circulated constitutional amendments to address this concern.

This line of attack demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of both the nature of corporations and the freedoms protected by the Constitution, which is exemplified by the facile charge that “corporations aren’t human beings.”

Well of course they aren’t — but that’s constitutionally irrelevant: Corporations aren’t “real people” in the sense that the Constitution’s protection of sexual privacy or prohibition on slavery make no sense in this context, but that doesn’t mean that corporate entities also lack, say, Fourth Amendment rights. Or would the “no rights for corporations” crowd be okay with the police storming their employers’ offices and carting off their (employer-owned) computers for no particular reason? — or to chill criticism of some government policy.

Or how about Fifth Amendment rights? Can the mayor of New York exercise eminent domain over Rockefeller Center by fiat and without compensation if he decides he’d like to move his office there?

So corporations have to have some constitutional rights or nobody would form them in the first place. The reason they have these rights isn’t because they’re “legal” persons, however — though much of the doctrine builds on that technical point — but instead because corporations are merely one of the ways in which rights-bearing individuals associate to better engage in a whole host of constitutionally protected activity

That is, the Constitution protects these groups of rights-bearing individuals. The proposition that only human beings, standing alone, with no group affiliation whatsoever, are entitled to First Amendment protection — that “real people” lose some of their rights when they join together in groups of two or ten or fifty or 100,000 — is legally baseless and has no grounding in the Constitution. George Mason law professor Ilya Somin, also a Cato adjunct scholar, discusses this point here.\

This is a point that bears repeating, since it’s pretty clear that the anti-speech crowd on the left doesn’t really get it.

14 Responses to “The Phony “Corporate Rights” Argument Against Citizens United”

  1. Vast Variety says:

    Let me clarify something here.

    I do agree that the court made the right decision, but only on technicalities. I still stand behind the principle that Corporations are not people and they have no business interfering in the political discourse. The constitution needs to be corrected to ensure that the people are not overwhelmed by the voice of corporate interest.

    As Lincoln stated, America is a nation “Of the People, by the people, and for the People.”

  2. And if that happens, then it will be the death knell of real political speech in this country.

    Fortunately I have confidence in saying this amendment is going nowhere

  3. Vast Variety says:

    How would political speech be killed if the voice of the people is allowed to be heard over corporate interests?

    And yes your right about one thing, the amendment will probably go nowhere… which means we have all ready killed political speech in this country.

  4. Mike says:

    “How would political speech be killed if the voice of the people is allowed to be heard over corporate interests?”

    Ignoring the fact that this would mean the end of any and all interest groups (which would be a horrible thing in and of itself), once you start banning certain forms of speech things snowball from there.

  5. Vast Variety says:

    I’m not advocating banning speech. Every individual in this country has the right to free speech,

    A corporation is simply not a person.

  6. James Young says:

    “VV,” the problem is with your premise, i.e., that “the voice of the people” differs somehow from “corporate interests.” A corporation is a collection of people with common interests … just like a church congregation, a social group, and even, a labor union (though only the last is empowered by Federal law to force people to contribute to its activities).

    Since you’ve clearly never read it, I would commend to your attention Federalist No. 10.

    I also suspect that your premise would be different if we substituted “union” for “corporate.” Of course, if you far Lefties didn’t have double standards, you’d have no standards at all.

  7. Robert in SF says:


    Actually doesn’t the government have the power of eminent domain over private person’s property for public use (not counting the whole “give the property to developers for commercial use” tragedy that has occurred)? Why would a corporation be immune from that same power just because they aren’t a person?

    The text of the bill of rights for the First Amendment is practically context free, especially compared to other Amendments:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;

    Compared to:

    The right of the People to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,

    No person shall be held to answer for any capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury…

    So in some it clearly spells out people, in the First Amendment, it just says “make no law abridging freedom of speech” but not specify “the freedom of the people” or “abridging a person’s freedom of speech”…

    It’s an interesting point to me, someone who can be very pedantic about writing in the law.

    I don’t think money=speech, however. But that’s a personal opinion. So spending money to support a political cause or person or topic is not speech and can be regulated, IMHO.

  8. James Young says:

    And VV, you clearly are “advocating banning speech,” speech by groups of people you don’t like. That you deny it makes you either ignorant, or a liar. There is no third alternative.

  9. Dave C says:

    Vast.. if Citizens United called themselves a Union instead.. would that make you feel better?

  10. Let's Be Free says:

    Shut job creators up? Well then have good luck finding that guy behind the tree.

    Unholy alliances abound between politicians and political parties, on the one hand, and the traditional press, on the other hand.

    Tis absurd and counterproductive that corporate interests at the New York Times, NBC, the New Yorker or the Huffington Post can freely express their views while corporations that are directly responsible for our commercial and economic strength are muzzled. That will be a great recipe for no jobs, no jobs, no jobs.

  11. Vast Variety says:

    Dave C.

    Unions are no better than the corporations that they pretend to protect employees from all while ripping people off of their hard earned money and forcing companies to raise prices to cover the ridiculous benefits packages that they negotiate for the union leadership. A Union is also, not a person.

    Bill Gates shouldn’t be allowed to hide behind the corporate logo of Microsoft when he gives money to a political campaign.

  12. Most people get this ruling wrong from the get go. First, the ruling doesn’t say corporations (or unions) can give unlimited amounts to candidates, it says they can spend the money advocating for them, if they wish.

    Unions and other’s have done it under the guise of 529’s since the McCain-Feingold act. Corporations though, were prohibited from donating to 529’s. Strange. Now that suddenly they can spend money countering Union PAC and 529 money, it’s a travesty?

  13. The problem with this is that many corporations are at least partially owned – in many cases, heavily owned – by international interests. It’s hard to take a corporation as a person when said voice is multinational (itself a problem that needs to be corrected, but this isn’t the time or place for that).

    This is what bothers me the most about the SCOTUS decision. Not just the fact that corporations we don’t like can beat stupid, mindless people into voting for their interests purely by attrition, but that non-Americans can play a major part into our American elections.

  14. [...] The Phony “Corporate Rights” Argument Against Citizens United, Mataconis and I find common ground. Excerpting from When Individuals Form Corporations, They [...]

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