Tag: corporate rights

‘People’s Rights Amendment’ Would Knock Out People’s Rights

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Kathleen Hunker.

Any prizefighter worth betting on knows that the worst thing you can do in a tough match is succumb to frustration.  House Democrats should heed that wisdom.  Frustrated by the Constitution’s interference in their efforts to muzzle certain kinds of political speech, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and 27 other congressmen have proposed a constitutional amendment that would overturn the Supreme Court’s holding in Citizens United.

Unfortunately, in their haste to deliver a blow against evil corporations, these lawmakers have exposed the Constitution’s flank in a way that would lead to debilitating blows against individual civil rights were this measure ever adopted.

The proposed change, absurdly titled the People’s Rights Amendment, asserts that the Constitution protects only the rights of “natural persons” and that Congress retains the ability to subject “all corporate entities” to any regulation or restriction Congress deems “reasonable.”  Its supporters contend that the Amendment is necessary to reduce the role of money in politics and ensure that elections represent the voice of the people.  As several commentators have already observed, however, the amendment does far more than subject corporations to new campaign finance regulations.

Although the People’s Rights Amendment says that it shall not be construed “to limit the people’s rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free exercise of religion, freedom of association and all such other rights of the people,” it radically contracts those and other rights entrenched in America’s political tradition.

George Will’s latest column explains this very point. In addition to denying “natural persons” the right to associate and speak in concert,

McGovern stresses that his amendment decrees that “all corporate entities — for-profit and nonprofit alike” — have no constitutional rights.  So Congress — and state legislatures and local governments — could regulate to the point of proscription political speech, or any other speech, by the Sierra Club, the National Rifle Association, NARAL Pro-Choice America or any of the other tens of thousands of nonprofit corporate advocacy groups, including political parties and campaign committees.

Newspapers, magazines, broadcasting entities, online journalism operations — and most religious institutions — are corporate entities.  McGovern’s amendment would strip them of all constitutional rights.

Instead of removing corporate money – which goes much more to lobbyists (petitioning for redress of grievances) than electioneering anyway – the amendment grants Congress the power to strip think tanks, advocacy groups, charities, newspapers, political parties, and even a candidate’s campaign of the right to criticize and oppose the government.  Any political speech more complex than standing on a park bench at an Occupy rally becomes subject to the whims of federal bureaucrats.  Even books don’t escape the amendment’s long reach, as the government lawyer admitted would be the case under the pre-Citizens United law that the amendment hopes to reinstate.

McGovern and Pelosi haven’t answered how the People’s Rights Amendment ensures that elections represent the voice of the people when it takes away the very venues on which the people stand to have their voice heard.

George Will makes a second foreboding observation.  He notes that, by stripping corporations of all constitutional protections, the amendment would empower the government to do much more than proscribe speech:

[G]overnment, unleashed by McGovern’s amendment, could regulate religious practices at most houses of worship, conduct whatever searches it wants, reasonable or not, of corporate entities, and seize corporate-owned property for whatever it deems public uses — without paying compensation. Yes, McGovern’s scythe would mow down the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, as well as the First.

For more on these dangers, see here and here.  Of course corporations aren’t human beings, but that brilliant insight is legally irrelevant.  Corporations are formed by individuals as a means of exercising their constitutionally protected rights, and those individuals do not lose the protection of the Constitution by choosing to exercise their right to associate and pool their resources.

Thus, while a corporation does not enjoy the full breadth of constitutional rights (i.e., sexual privacy), it warrants whatever degree of protection is necessary for its members to exist as free and rational beings.  These rights certainly extend to the ability to publicize and support political initiatives.

Before the supporters of People’s Rights Amendment make that massive lunge against what they view as constitutional frustrations, they should take a step back and reassess whether the satisfaction they derive from sticking it to corporations is worth the potential collapse of our political system’s commitment to a free society.

Why Corporate Speech Rights But Not Corporate Liability for Violating the ‘Law of Nations’?

Yesterday the Supreme Court heard argument in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, the case (which I’ve discussed before and in which Cato filed a brief) that asks whether, under the Alien Tort Statute, the “law of nations” can be applied against an entity that is not a natural person: a corporation.  As the majority of the Court seemed to think, and as I wrote in the New York Times online, the answer is no because Congress never gave U.S. courts the power to entertain lawsuits alleging corporate malfeasance involving foreign actors abroad.

It seems like a discrete enough issue – does this statute contemplate corporate liability? – one that international law junkies and the “human rights” establishment are passionate about, but not one that should have much broader purchase.  Yet the blogosphere, not least the response to my Times piece, is up in arms about organizations like Cato saying that “corporations are people” when it gets them political speech rights (Citizens United) but not when it subjects them to liability for their dastardly deeds (Kiobel).

But to make this charge – whether labeled shilling for corporations or just plain hypocrisy – is to misunderstand both Citizens United and Kiobel.

Before explaining why, let me just reiterate that I agree with the keen point that corporations are not human beings.  But that brilliant observation is legally irrelevant.  Corporations are formed by individuals as a means of exercising their constitutionally protected rights.  Corporate personhood is simply a convenient legal fiction that we use to enable that rights-pooling for all sorts of purposes.  If using the word “person” in relation to an inanimate entity is confusing or offensive, you could try calling it something else (but then nobody you’re talking to would understand you, so we’re stuck with the word, for better or worse).  In any event, as I explain in my recent law review article – “So What If Corporations Aren’t People?” – none of this changes how the law treats corporations.

Now then, I’m not saying that corporate personhood is operative for purposes of political speech but not for purposes of liability for malfeasance.  Instead, I’m clarifying two areas of law as they relate to corporate actors.  First, the First Amendment guarantees that rights-bearing individuals don’t forfeit their rights (to speak about politics or anything else) when they associate in groups, whether in corporate form or otherwise.  Second, the Alien Tort Statute – a peculiar law by which Congress gave federal courts jurisdiction over ”law of nations” violations alleged by foreigners against other foreigners – doesn’t recognize corporations as a type of party that can in that manner be haled into our courts.  That is so because the “law of nations” doesn’t extend to corporate actions (for reasons explained in our brief and elsewhere that I won’t repeat here).  

Kiobel has nothing to do with corporate liability in general – e.g., liability for manufacturing defective products, dumping chemicals, etc., in violation of U.S. or even foreign law – but rather only concerns corporate liability for human rights abuses and other violations of the “law of nations” by foreign corporations in foreign countries.

The law can surely be “a ass,” but you have to understand what law you’re discussing to understand what type of ass it might be.

Published: So What If Corporations Aren’t People?

Six months ago, I wrote about a law review article I had just co-authored with former Cato legal associate Caitlyn McCarthy regarding corporate rights post-Citizens United.  Well, now it’s officially published, in The John Marshall Law Review.  Here’s the abstract:

Corporate participation in public discourse has long been a controversial issue, one that was reignited by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, 130 S. Ct. 876 (2010). Much of the criticism of Citizens United stems from the claim that the Constitution does not protect corporations because they are not “real” people. While it’s true that corporations aren’t human beings, that truism is constitutionally irrelevant because corporations are formed by individuals as a means of exercising their constitutionally protected rights. When individuals pool their resources and speak under the legal fiction of a corporation, they do not lose their rights. It cannot be any other way; in a world where corporations are not entitled to constitutional protections, the police would be free to storm office buildings and seize computers or documents. The mayor of New York City could exercise eminent domain over Rockefeller Center by fiat and without compensation if he decides he’d like to move his office there. Moreover, the government would be able to censor all corporate speech, including that of so-called media corporations. In short, rights-bearing individuals do not forfeit those rights when they associate in groups. This essay will demonstrate why the common argument that corporations lack rights because they aren’t people demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of both the nature of corporations and the First Amendment.

Go here to download “So What If Corporations Aren’t People?”

‘Corporations Are [Made of] People’

Mitt Romney’s explanation of why he’s against raising taxes on corporations — indeed, America already has some of the highest corporate tax rates in the developed world — at the Iowa State Fair was a bit awkward but not wholly incorrect.  Reason’s Katherine Mangu-Ward has a good post with video and transcript, but here’s the salient bit:

ROMNEY: We have to make sure that the promises we make — and Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare — are promises we can keep. And there are various ways of doing that. One is, we could raise taxes on people.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Corporations!

ROMNEY: Corporations are people, my friend. We can raise taxes on—

AUDIENCE MEMBER: No, they’re not!

ROMNEY: Of course they are. Everything corporations earn also goes to people.

AUDIENCE: [LAUGHTER]

ROMNEY: Where do you think it goes?

AUDIENCE MEMBER: It goes into their pockets!

ROMNEY: Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People’s pockets! Human beings, my friend. So number one, you can raise taxes. That’s not the approach that I would take.

Now, obviously, Romney is not saying that corporations are living, breathing beings with rights to abortion (or not, or depending on the stage of development of the fetal/baby corporations) and marriage, who are subject to Obamacare’s individual mandate (or even Romneycare’s for Massachusetts corporations), can be put to death if they murder someone, and so forth.  He means that corporate money always comes from, flows through, and ends up in human hands.  It cannot be otherwise: we are the only beings/entities/”things” on the planet that deal in money.  Not even the honey badger does that.

I probably would’ve phrased it differently — Democrats and left-wing activists are already having a field day (for example, mixing Romney’s speech with Barbra Streisand’s singing “People”) — but there’s really nothing wrong with Romney’s point.  Indeed, it’s the tax-policy corollary to the legal point I’ve been making ever since Citizens United came down: corporations don’t have constitutional rights because they’re corporations, but because they’re made up of individuals, who don’t lose their rights when they associate (in corporate form or otherwise).

As I said in a previous blogpost, “it really doesn’t matter that ‘corporations aren’t people.’  Of course they’re not living, breathing human beings, and their ’personhood’ for legal purposes is just that: a convenient legal fiction.”  I even wrote a law review article (co-authored with Caitlyn Walsh McCarthy) to explain this fairly simple argument.  From the abstract:

When individuals pool their resources and speak under the legal fiction of a corporation, they do not lose their rights. It cannot be any other way; in a world where corporations are not entitled to constitutional protections, the police would be free to storm office buildings and seize computers or documents. The mayor of New York City could exercise eminent domain over Rockefeller Center by fiat and without compensation if he decides he’d like to move his office there. Moreover, the government would be able to censor all corporate speech, including that of so-called media corporations. In short, rights-bearing individuals do not forfeit those rights when they associate in groups.

Similarly, when you tax corporations, you’re taxing the people who ultimately profit from corporate activity: officers, directors, and, most directly, shareholders.  Of course, all these people also pay individual income taxes so, in effect, that income is being taxed twice.   I’ll leave it to my colleague Dan Mitchell to explain why that might be bad and how otherwise to reform our tax code, but the fact of the matter is that raising corporate taxes does in fact constitute raising taxes on people — which you have to be against if you want to become the Republican presidential nominee.  That’s why Romney said what he said.

Anyhow, the title of my article is “So What If Corporations Aren’t People?” but perhaps I should retitle it “So What If Corporations Are People?” and offer it as a press release to the Romney campaign.

So What If Corporations Aren’t People?

As Julian Sanchez detailed yesterday, those who complain about fewer restrictions on corporate political speech but celebrate the freeing of restrictions on corporate videogame speech are in a bit of a logical pretzel.  But ultimately both those who think corporations have speech rights and those who don’t miss the larger point: it’s not about corporate rights but the rights of the individuals who freely associate and thus pool their speech via the corporate legal form.

That is, it really doesn’t matter that “corporations aren’t people.”  Of course they’re not living, breathing human beings, and their ”personhood” for legal purposes is just that: a convenient legal fiction.

To elaborate on these ideas, Cato legal associate Caitlyn Walsh McCarthy and I have  written a law review article titled “So What If Corporations Aren’t People?”  Here’s the abstract:

Corporate participation in public discourse has long been a controversial issue, one that was reignited by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, 130 S. Ct. 876 (2010). Much of the criticism of Citizens United stems from the claim that the Constitution does not protect corporations because they are not “real” people. While it’s true that corporations aren’t human beings, that truism is constitutionally irrelevant because corporations are formed by individuals as a means of exercising their constitutionally protected rights. When individuals pool their resources and speak under the legal fiction of a corporation, they do not lose their rights. It cannot be any other way; in a world where corporations are not entitled to constitutional protections, the police would be free to storm office buildings and seize computers or documents. The mayor of New York City could exercise eminent domain over Rockefeller Center by fiat and without compensation if he decides he’d like to move his office there. Moreover, the government would be able to censor all corporate speech, including that of so-called media corporations. In short, rights-bearing individuals do not forfeit those rights when they associate in groups. This essay will demonstrate why the common argument that corporations lack rights because they aren’t people demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of both the nature of corporations and the First Amendment.

This article is still being edited – it won’t appear in the John Marshall Law Review till the fall – so comments are welcome.  Thanks to Eugene Volokh for making suggestions on an earlier version.

Update: Larry Solum has “recommended” our article on the Legal Theory Blog.  Thanks!

When Individuals Form Corporations, They Don’t Lose Their Rights

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.

In any event, as Chief Justice Roberts said in his Citizens United concurrence: “The First Amendment protects more than just the individual on a soapbox and the lonely pamphleteer.” Justice Scalia makes the same point, explaining that the text of the Constitution “makes no distinction between types of speakers.” The New York Times isn’t “an individual American” but its speech is still protected under the First Amendment (regardless of any exemption for “media corporations” – whatever those are in a world where conglomerates own interests not limited to media, not to mention the advent of blogs and other “new” media).

A related line of attack is that individuals acting through corporations should be denied their freedom of speech because corporations are “state-created entities.” The theory goes that if a state has the power to create corporations, then it has the power to define those entities’ rights. Somin rebuts the weakness of this argument here, correctly pointing out that nearly every newspaper and political journal in the country is a corporation.

In short, the contention that the First Amendment does not protect corporations ignores the fact that there is no constitutional difference between individuals and groups of individuals, however organized.  Still, I give credit to the groups who are proposing constitutional amendments that would limit corporate rights: at least they recognize that, after Citizens United, there is no basis upon which to argue that the First Amendment does not protect corporate political speech.  The Free Speech Clause, after all, is blind as to the nature of the speaker.

For further concise refutations of the basic arguments against Citizens United, see here (points 3-6 address issues relating to corporations and their rights).