Monday, August 24, 2009

Are Corporations People?

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that Free Speech is fundamental to our American Democracy and one of the most basic rights protected by the first Amendment to the United States Constitution.

A continuing controversy persists about free speech when it relates to political speech however. For example, is a political contribution an exercise of free speech? Can contributions be excessive such that they might exert improper influence on the outcome of an election? If indeed, political contributions are considered the exercise of a First Amendment right can there be placed a limit on such contributions in the name or protecting free speech?

It gets even more murky when the 'free speech' is being exercised by a corporation. Are corporations people? In an April 2007 ruling Federal Judge Paul Barbadoro found that corporations, as legal persons, have "free speech rights that would be infringed . . . ." in a case involving doctors and drug companies.

It is no secret that corporations spend a lot of money in the support of particular candidates or legislation that is in their best interest. Is this free speech too? Should such campaign financing therefore be protected as free speech in such cases?

Central to this discussion is the decision in the late 1800's that established "the doctrine of corporate personhood -- the claim that corporations were intended to fully enjoy the legal status and protections created for human beings".

One might have serious doubts about such an interpretation of the First Amendment when one considers the different treatment of people and corporations in a court of law. One has to ask if a corporation has ever been or could be sentenced to life in prison (or even executed) should its deliberate and/or negligent actions be found to be directly responsible for the death of an individual, as would a person on trial in similar circumstances.

There is no shortage of articles describing corporate behavior which has directly caused serious injury or death of employees and customers. Tobacco, lead paint, mining disasters come to mind. Negligence in aircraft maintenance has been in the news recently with its tragic consequences.

In some cases individual executives have been singled out and punished but the standard response of courts has been some sort of fine or reprimand for the corporation.

Corporations do enjoy the privileges of 'personhood' but they certainly have few of the responsibilities or obligations of real people.

Clearly corporations are not persons and it's about time we stopped pretending that they are.

Maybe it's just me.