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People's Rights Amendment

Updated on March 17, 2015

Although few if any would argue that corporations are literally people—that they are walking, talking, breathing, blinking human beings—that does not change the fact that corporations are considered people in a legal sense. That is to say, corporations have the same rights as people do as guaranteed by the United States Constitution. The history of this notion runs through the Supreme Court with several important cases over the course of multiple decades. In 1976, Buckley v. Valeo ruled that “personal expenditures on advertisements advocating the election or defeat of candidates is protected political speech under the First Amendment” (Citizen.org, vi). In 2010, the Supreme Court Ruled in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that “limits on any corporate independent expenditures are unconstitutional” (Citizen.org, viii). There were other cases along the way, but these two were the most influential on the issue of corporate personhood and corporate political expenditures. The People’s Rights Amendment, proposed by Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA), is a response to Supreme Court Cases like Citizens United. It would make it so corporations are no longer legally considered people, and thus, would no longer have the unalienable right to make unlimited political campaign contributions. People who support the People’s Rights Amendment amendment say that it would eliminate corporations’ excessive influence over the country’s politics and government, while those who oppose such an amendment argue it would unfairly take away important rights from corporations.

Proponents of the People’s Rights Amendment argue that it would curb undue corporate influence without adversely affecting other corporate rights. Although the wording of the Amendment might lead one to believe that the main purpose of the amendment was to eliminate corporate personhood simply for the sake of doing so, a closer examination of the proposed amendment’s context shows that it is indeed about eliminating corporations’ ability to spend money on political campaigns. Free Speech For People is the group behind the People’s Rights Amendment. Their website states, “The most direct result of Citizens United is that we can now no longer bar corporations from spending limitless sums of money to take over our elections. Citizens United, in practice, also opened the door to unlimited giving by individuals to ‘independent’ campaign groups such as SuperPACs” (Free Speech For People). Essentially, what the quote is arguing is that the Supreme Court has created a system of legalized bribery. There are laws against directly paying a politician in exchange for certain action, however, there are far fewer laws against funding a politician’s campaign; yet proponents of the People’s Rights Amendment argue that the contrast between these acts represents a distinction without difference, and either form of payment constitutes, as they put it, a “take over.”

Furthermore, proponents of the proposed amendment point out the dangers of allowing a corporation to have the rights of a person. A New York Times article points out how, “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued in her dissenting opinion [on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby] that a corporation might object on religious grounds to paying for blood transfusions, vaccinations or antidepressants. Other scholars say the same logic could justify a right to privacy as a shield against regulatory scrutiny, or a right to bear arms.” David Cobb expressed a similar when he said, “If concentrated capital can claim inherent and unalienable rights, then corporate lawyers can overturn public health laws, public safety laws, worker protection laws, and campaign finance laws” (Cobb). In other words, certain regulations guide the employee employer relationship—labor laws, safety standards, et cetera. However, if a corporation is allowed, like in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Supreme Court Case, to choose to ignore certain laws on the basis of supposed constitutional rights, then what is to stop a same corporation from ignoring, for instance, child labor laws on the basis that adhering to such laws would violate its religion? If corporations are considered to be legally human beings, it hurts the ability of the government to implement positive consumer and employee protections. One could potentially have a legitimate debate about whether it is the government’s job to protect consumers and employees, but it would be nearly impossible to argue that corporate personhood does not negatively affect consumers and employees.

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Proponents of the amendment will generally admit that the idea of corporate personhood initially protected important corporate economic rights, but it has now expanded too far. As the aforementioned New York Times article also mentioned, “[T]he treatment of corporations as people has expanded beyond its original economic logic” (Appelbaum). Prior to this statement, the article talked about how, “The notion of corporate personhood still sounds weird, but we rely upon it constantly in our everyday lives. The corporation that published this column, for instance, is exercising its constitutional right to speak freely and to make contracts” (Appelbaum). These rights are clearly important for corporations, but the important point here is that corporations need not necessarily be considered people in order to retain these rights. They could retain these necessary rights as corporate rights, even if they didn’t retain them as inherent and unalienable human rights. As Cobb points out, “[People must] Separate the idea of being able to enter into contracts and being able to exist from whether [corporations] have inherent, unalienable constitutional rights” (Cobb). To summarize the argument of the proponents, corporate personhood gives corporations undue political influence, harms employees and consumers, and is unnecessary for the economic well-being of corporations, therefore, America should ratify the People’s Rights Amendment.

Opponents of the People’s Rights Amendment argue that corporations need the legal status of people in order to protect themselves from the government and that because corporations are associations of people, they therefore deserve to retain the rights of people. On the first point, those who oppose the People’s Rights Amendment argue that it would not only eliminate the rights of corporations to spend money on political elections, but would also strip away all their other constitutional rights. George Will wrote a column summarizing the position of opponents to the bill, which, if not entirely accurate, is at least useful for understanding what rationale—if any—lies behind this position. Will states, “McGovern stresses that his amendment decrees that ‘all corporate entities — for-profit and nonprofit alike’— have no constitutional rights. So Congress—and state legislatures and local governments—could regulate to the point of proscription political speech, or any other speech” (Will). It is true that the amendment would make corporate right no longer unalienable, so there is potential for this to happen, but how likely it is to actually happen is a separate question.

Will goes on to say, “Newspapers, magazines, broadcasting entities, online journalism operations — and most religious institutions — are corporate entities. McGovern’s amendment would strip them of all constitutional rights” (Will). Again, it is true that the amendment would strip unalienable constitutional rights, but it does not mean that corporations would necessarily lose these rights. They could retain them as corporate rights, even if they were not considered unalienable corporate rights. Nevertheless Will goes on to cite the “Volokh Conspiracy blog” that, “[G]overnment, unleashed by McGovern’s amendment, could regulate religious practices at most houses of worship, conduct whatever searches it wants, reasonable or not, of corporate entities, and seize corporate-owned property for whatever it deems public uses—without paying compensation. Yes, McGovern’s scythe would mow down the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, as well as the First” (Will). Again, the key word is “could.” Will is not technically incorrect in his assessment, but the likelihood of uncompensated seizure of corporate property and regulation of religious institutions would not necessarily rise because of the People’s Rights Amendment—rather, it “could” allow Congress to pass such laws. However, just because congress “could” there is no evidence that Congress would, nor does it seem likely.

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Opponents of the amendment argue on the second point that corporations are associations of people and therefore deserve the legal status of people. On this issue, Will states that, “the amendment is explicitly designed to deny such rights to natural persons who, exercising their First Amendment right to freedom of association, come together in corporate entities to speak in concert” (Will). This is an accurate statement, and Will’s argument here is that if corporations are created by people, then they should have the same rights as the people who created them. If there is any true debate on the issue of corporate personhood, then it is perhaps on this point. Those who oppose corporate personhood argue that the entity of a corporation does not retain the rights of its creators, which is a valid argument, since a corporation is not a person, while Will and supporters of corporate personhood argue that a corporation is an association of people, and therefore retains the rights of people. However, it should be noted that even if one accepts Will’s argument, then one must also accept the idea that money is free speech in order to support the overall idea that corporations can contribute to political campaigns. Summarily, the argument against the People’s Rights Amendment, and in favor of corporate personhood, is that corporations would be oppressed by the government if they weren’t legally considered people, and that corporations should legally be considered people because they are an association of people.

Overall, the problem with the People’s Rights Amendment is that is does not go far enough. Proponents of the Amendment are more factually correct than opponents of the bill. It is somewhat subjective as to whether it is bad for corporations to be able to fund politicians’ campaigns, but it is hard to see how anyone, corporations included, could give money to a politician without it being bribery, and bribery is generally considered a negative thing. After all, if a politician received money from a corporation, the politician is that much more likely to pass or oppose legislation with the interests of that corporation in mind, rather than the interests of all the other constituents. However, as stated, the amendment does not go far enough in this regard, since it does not actually bar corporations or other private individuals and institutions from financing elections. The People’s Rights Amendment addresses one half, and probably the less important half, of a two-pronged problem. The Supreme Court did two things: one was to rule that corporations are people, which this amendment addresses, but the other was to give corporations the ability to spend money on political campaigns by declaring it free speech. Taking away the legal status of a corporation as a person will not automatically eliminate the corporation’s ability to spend money on political campaigns. It will make it possible for Congress to pass such a law, but the question then becomes whether or not Congress will actually pass such a law. If the corporations are still financing the politicians’ campaigns, it is hard to imagine Congress passing any such law. Therefore, while the amendment is an overall good, it would be better to support one of the many other proposed amendments which include clauses both to overturn corporate personhood, and to require public financing of elections.

Works Cited

Appelbaum, Binyamin. "What the Hobby Lobby Ruling Means for America." The New York Times. N.p., 22 July 2014. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

Democracy Is for the People. "Timeline on Corporate Personhood."Citizen.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.

"End Corporate Personhood." Interview by Cenk Uygur and David Cobb. Youtube. N.p., 28 Apr. 2013. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=siJjy-3WHPU>.

Free Speech for People. “The People’s Rights Amendment: S.J.Res. 18 / H.J.Res. 21.” Free Speech for People. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

Free Speech for People. “What is the Problem?” Free Speech for People. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

Will, George F. "Taking a Scythe to the Bill of Rights." The Washington Post. N.p., 4 May 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.

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