Should the government be able to ban books
and movies? Well, the United States government says yes. At least it did in Citizens United
v. Federal Election Commission. Now youíve probably heard of Citizens United
v. Federal Election Commission as the case in which the Supreme Court says that corporations
are just like people and should be able to spend as much money as they want on politics.
But the government’s position in that case was that if a corporation had any role in
producing or distributing a book or movieósay, Barnes & Noble selling a book or Disney, Pixar,
or MGM making a movieóthe government could ban it if it contained even one line of political
advocacy. Thereís a lot more to the case in this idea
of “corporate personhood” than what you might have heard.
Corporations are not people, and nobody thinks they are. The Supreme Court doesn’t think
they are. But corporations have been recognized as persons for purposes of the law for centuriesóin
the United States, at least since the 1819 Supreme Court decision in Dartmouth College
v. Woodward, but really going back quite a bit further into the common law.
So if corporations aren’t people, what are they? Well, theyíre not just office buildings,
or desks, or telephones. Corporations consist of, in fact, managers and executives and shareholders.
That’s really what a corporation is. By treating corporations as people, for legal purposes,
we create a great many advantages for our society. In fact, imagine if we didn’t treat
a corporation as a person. How would you sue a corporation? If you wanted to sue Exxon,
you’d have to find the millions of different shareholders and sue them all individually.
That doesn’t sound like a very satisfactory way to run a court system. Having corporations
recognized as people for legal purposes allows corporations to buy and sell property without
having to retitle the property every time somebody sells their stock. It enables people
to pool their resources to create great new products for us. It allows the creation of
an Apple that produces iPhones and iPads that we can use. That would probably not happen
if you didn’t have some mechanism for people to bring all their property together. So the
idea of a corporation as a person, as a legal concept, is very valuable to us.
Now, do corporations have all the rights of real people? Well no, of course they don’t.
But corporations have all the rights that we as people have when we assemble, when we
join together. So John can speak, and you have a right to speak, and I have a right
to speak, and the three of us have a right to speak together. And we have a right to
get a whole bunch of other people to join with us. And we can all go down to city hall,
and we don’t lose our rights to the First Amendment, our rights to speak and assemble
and petition, simply because we join together and simply because we might organize ourselves
as a corporation in order to handle our administrative and management affairs.
Think about what would happen if corporations didn’t have rights. The government could just
seize corporate property and leave the shareholders holding worthless pieces of stock that are
of no value whatsoeveróand they could do that with no due process and with no just
compensation. It could search office buildings of corporations, because if corporations didn’t
have rights, who would have standing to object when the government came around to do warrantless
searches? Corporations don’t have rights because they’re
people. They’re not. They have rights because we have rights as people. And we have rights
as people even when we join together with other people, and we have rights even when
we form corporations. We form corporations to help us do the things we want to do in
life, whether it’s go into business or hold property together, or even organize a nonprofit
like the Sierra Club or the ACLU. So when you say that corporations shouldn’t have rights,
you’re restricting not the rights not of some amorphous group or thing that nobody’s ever
heard of, you’re restricting the rights of real people. And when we think about the position
that the government took in Citizens United, that the government has the right to ban a
book or a movie simply because a corporation had some role in producing or distributing
it, I think we should be awfully glad that corporations have rights.
And thatís something you probably havenít heard about Citizens United.