Wait, Corporations Aren’t People? Not in New York City, They’re Not.

01/09/2012 8:59 AM |

“Corporate personhood” isn’t just a buzzphrase uttered down at Occupy Wall Street. Last week, New York City became the fifth American metropolis to agree that corporations should not have the same rights, and constitutional protection of those rights, as individual citizens.

Following similar legislation passed by Los Angeles, Albany, Oakland and Boulder, City Council’s Resolution 1172 called out 2010’s controversial Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision as completely effed up, resolving to support a constitutional amendment “specifically so that the expenditure of corporate money to influence the electoral process is no longer a form of constitutionally protected speech.” Bam. Non-binding as it is, that’s some pretty powerful consensus against corporate power run amok.

The Supreme Court decision that Resolution 1172 references, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, gave corporate personhood a political reality. The Supreme Court decided that corporations need not have their spending for political purposes regulated or restricted, as hindering that would somehow obstruct free “political speech.” That means that corporations, then, possess freedom of expression through first amendment rights, the identical freedom ensured to individual American citizens. The day that Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the 5-4 majority opinion, President Obama pledged to get to work forming a congressional response, calling the decision “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” For obvious reasons, fighting against corporate personhood became a pet cause of the Occupy movement, some of which showed up to the Council’s proceedings.

The idea that people remain distinct and different from corporations is pretty straightforward. Corporations, minus the newfangled addendum of “corporate social responsibility,” are consistently, purely motivated by profit margins. Individual human beings, who aren’t made up of corporate power structures, pursue activities and political affiliations that might not have to do with maximizing moolah. We have thoughts, feelings, idiosyncrasies, personal ethics, morals and passions. Ensuring the democratic process, therefore, has historically meant ensuring that the individual voter can express these things through the ballot.

Speaking of ballots, and potential future ones, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich feel, meh, otherwise. In a statement that seems particularly chilling to announce at an Iowa state fair, Romney told a crowd last year that, “Corporations are people, my friend.” Shudder. Another bit of GOP trivia for the long ride to November, 2012.

Follow Sydney Brownstone on Twitter @sydbrownstone

5 Comment

  • Careful: this confuses “persons” with “people” — legally, entirely different notions. We also need to be a bit careful in saying that Citizens United gave corporate personhood “political reality”. Corporate personhood is a very old legal concept, going back hundreds of years in Europe and the Middle East.
    Finally, it’s worth pointing out that NYC’s decision doesn’t in the least imply that corporations aren’t legal persons any more. It simply modifies one particular right among many that corporations (and other non-human legal persons like churches and unions and NGOs) have.
    (For what it’s worth, Romney, in his famous quote, was actually talking about the exact opposite of corporate personhood — he spoke elliptically, but was clearly referring to the people *behind* the corporation, which is quite different from saying that corporations are persons.)

    Chris MacDonald
    BusinessEthicsBlog.com

  • @Chris Thanks for the clarification of terms. Still, the language of the resolution does call for an amendment to provide that, “corporations are not entitled to the entirety of protections or

  • @Sydney: The resolution, then, is only reaffirming the status quo: corporations never have been entitled to the entirety of protections or rights of natural persons.

    As far as I can see, people are upset (perhaps rightly) about the extension of ONE particular right, and have mistakenly translated that into a hatred for the very notion of corporate personhood (without which modern civilization is quite literally impossible).

  • @Chris I believe that people critical of corporate personhood do not want to dismantle the means of modern civilization, but rather recognize that the rights of “natural” persons extended to corporations (including first amendment rights) is wrong, especially in the context of outsized, unregulated corporate power in this country. This is the corporate personhood to which they are referring, the scenario in which corporations are guaranteed the same freedoms as natural persons, and use them to “drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” In that sense, the resolution denounces Citizens United as a step to realizing that kind of personhood, not the artificial personhood used by the legal system.

  • I don’t like the idea of “corporate personhood” because it fails to acknowledge one of the main purposes for incorporating: to not be treated as a person. This ruling allows people to avoid being people when it is inconvenient and to have the rights of people when it is benificial. You incorporate so that when your decisions kill people on an oil rig you don’t have to face criminal charges. You incorporate so that when your business goes bankrupt creditors cannot go after your personal wealth. If corporations are simply “persons,” then there is no need for this business organization. Granted, this assertion is simplistic, but it is rare when corporate board members actually have to face consequences as an individual. If it weren’t for corporate protection, I have to believe that the persons responsible for the financial collapse and the gulf oil spill would be facing not only civil, but criminal ramifications. The intellectual dishonesty of our partisan Supreme Court is apparent in this decision. I pray, figuratively, that Obama gets reelected and that he gets to replace at least one of the “bloc of five.” At this point in our history, appointing judges to the Supreme Court is the president’s most important duty. This current republican-led Supreme Court does not care about interpreting the constitution honesty; they are paying back their benefactors.