Money, speech, and corporate personhood

Posted on April 26, 2007


Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard the latest challenge to the McCain-Feingold Act, the act that set stringent limits on the ability of unions and corporations to air ads that specifically mention a candidates name within 60 days of the election. Wisconsin Right to Life (a corporation under federal law) sued, claiming that this restriction violated their right to free speech under the First Amendment. And, judging by the questions of the Supreme Court Justices during yesterday’s arguments, it looks like there’s a decent chance that the Roberts court will overturn this portion of the McCain-Feingold Act when it releases its decision sometime before June.

The United States has the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA)on the books that make it illegal for another country or non-citizens to donate money to candidates (see the FEC foreign national guidebook). Because of the FECA, foreign governments, individuals, corporations, organizations and associations, and parties are not permitted to donate money because doing so may unduly influence the candidate(s) who received those donations. Because we don’t want people like President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and President Vladomir Putin of Russia interfering with our internal politics, even the political activities of allies and their citizens are severely constrained within the United States.

Unfortunately, in a world where Wal-Mart has the 22nd largest economy in the world and thus has more economic power than even Saudi Arabia, and where each of the top four automobile makers (GM, Toyota, DaimlerChrysler, and Ford) individually have more economic clout than Venezuela and combined have a larger economy than Russia, why is it we keep allowing corporate money to equal free speech?

A large part of the problem is that the U.S. permits corporations to claim to be “juristic persons”, or a group that is not a human being but nonetheless has the responsibilities of a real person. Juristic persons can be charged with crimes, have their property seized, etc. just as real people can. The problem comes when you give a legalistic construct intended to codify the legal rights and responsibilities of groups of people the rights of a living, breathing individual human. Our natural or God-given rights enshrined in the Constitution do not inherently apply to human-created organizations such as corporations. And when you’ve got companies like Nike claiming the right to lie in advertising and public relation as free speech under the First Amendment, something has gone horribly, terribly wrong.

In an era where 95 of the 150 most powerful economies in the world are corporations, we should stop treating them as if they are people and start treating them as if they are nations instead. Since we don’t permit foreign nationals to influence our elections, we should similarly not permit corporations to spend corporate money in order to influence our elections. Individual corporate employees are citizens and are natural human beings, and as such they have their naturalistic right to free speech (although no-one ever said that speech couldn’t be sensibly regulated – if the Congress has the authority to invoke laws on libel and threatening speech, I don’t understand why they lack the authority to regulate laws on campaign speech). But the corporate entities themselves are not people – they are artificial constructions of people, and as such they have only the rights and privileges we choose to grant them.

It’s time to recall some of the very rights that corporations claim that they simply do not deserve.

UPDATE: I’m not actually calling for nations to be treated as true nations, although that wasn’t sufficiently clear from what I wrote. I want corporate money to be treated as if it came from a foreign souce instead of treated as if it came from a person. This gets rid of the “corporate personhood” problem and makes corporate political donations outright illegal.

[Crossposted from The Daedalnexus]

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