What Exactly Does "Corporations Are People" Mean?

Jeff Clements is the co-founder and president of Free Speech for People, a national, non-partisan campaign to overturn Citizens United v. FEC, to challenge unbalanced corporate power, and to help ensure the success of democracy in America. We asked him to explain the Citizens United case and various campaign finance reform related issues. If you care about getting money out of politics and overturning Citizens United, please pledge to vote this election at OurTime.org

1) What does it mean when the Supreme Court says that “corporations are people”?

It means our democracy is in jeopardy. When the Court ruled in Citizens United, a 5-4 majority determined that corporations have the same First Amendment freedom of speech as people do – and therefore have the right to spend unlimited money to influence our elections (because in the bizarre universe where five Supreme Court Justices live, money = free speech).  

Ginsburg Citizens United

2) How does this affect our day-to-day lives?  

This affects everything.  Say you want to pass a law in your town to stop giving tax breaks to a giant global coal company.  So you and your friends collect enough signatures to put a question on the ballot and give everyone in town an opportunity to vote “Yay” or “Nay.”  But before Election Day, the coal company sues; they say you and your friends are discriminating against them and that it’s a violation of the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th Amendment.  You know, the same amendment that was used to free the slaves.  Well, now it is now being used to “free” corporations from public oversight.  This is a true story, it happened just this last year in St. Louis MO and the court sided in favor of the corporation.

And it doesn’t just stop there. Courts have used this theory that corporations have the Constitutional rights of people to strike down food labeling laws, health laws, environmental laws, and privacy laws.  Currently in Seattle, global corporations are suing the city because of a new minimum wage law – again, citing the 14th amendment. 

A Constitutional right ALWAYS trumps a regular law if they conflict – if Washington is a poker table, corporate personhood is the ace in the hole.

3) Are there any legislative efforts to help combat this? Who is behind them and what are their key arguments? 

The Constitution opens by naming who owns it – we the people – and it’s we the people that have the power to change it. There is a rapidly growing movement for the 28th Amendment to the US Constitution to correct the Court’s disastrous mistake and to restore the Constitution of ‘We the People’. The Amendment(s) would reverse the Court’s mistake in Citizens United by establishing two things money is not speech, and corporations are not people. Under this amendment, Americans would once again have the power to ensure free, fair elections, and corporations would no longer be able to misuse the Constitutional rights of real people to strike down our laws. 

Free Speech For People and others are working for corporate law reform to ensure that corporations are more effective in the economy and society, without dominating and damaging our political system, environment and communities. 

4) What do opponents say and is there any truth to their arguments? 

Opponents say “Corporations are people, my friend.” But that’s laughable. Literally laughable.   

Let’s count the way that corporations are not people: they aren’t born, they can’t love, they never die.  They aren’t people, they aren’t endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.  They are convenient and useful legal entities.  Corporations are great for the economy – I have a corporation -- but they are bad for politics and they should be prohibited from participating in the political process along with Unions. 

That’s why support for overturning Citizens United is overwhelming and cross-partisan (frequently, local and state amendment resolutions pass 75-25%). 

At Free Speech For People, we have more on debunking the legal argument that opponents make here, here and here.

Citizens United

5) I’d like to learn more, how can I get involved?

Please join us at Free Speech For People, and check out our many allies at www.united4thepeople.org. And don’t forget to pick up a copy of Corporations Are Not People: Reclaiming Democracy From Big Money & Global Corporations.

Americans across the country are organizing 28th Amendment resolutions in their communities; helping build cross-partisan support; spreading the word to their family and friends; marching, writing and speaking out for democracy and our equal rights. We are surmounting an enormous challenge together.

 Every generation before us has amended the Constitution to fight for or to protect the promise of government of, for and by the people. So don’t listen to the hype that this is impossible.  Impossible is a big word that is thrown around by people who lack imagination and grit. It’s possible, it’s necessary, and together, we can do it. 

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