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Freedom: Individuals, Corporations, and the Constitution

July 2, 2010

Throughout history there are few, very few, documents or phrases known worldwide.  The opening three words of the U.S. Constitution, “We the People,[1]” is such a phrase.  Another is the Constitution’s first amendment.  It reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”[2]

While the exact words are not universally known, its parts most certainly are.  From it, citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and the right to protection from an over zealous government through the courts, public hearings, and demonstrations.  It is these freedoms known around the world.  It is these freedoms that make the United States different from all other countries.

That is not to say our freedom is unlimited.  For instance, a religious belief that calls for human sacrifice simply is not tolerated.  Nor is speech that proves harmful, as in someone shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, unless, of course, there really is a fire.  The fact is the penalties for stepping beyond our limits of freedom are severe.  In the case of human sacrifice, we would charge a person with murder.  In the case of shouting “fire,” the charge would be something like reckless endangerment.

The protection afforded citizens of the United States follows common sense.  Stating it as a protection is the correct way to think about it.  Our constitution does not limit the rights of citizens; it limits our government’s ability to interfere with citizens.  Poignantly, our constitution includes an amendment that makes that abundantly clear, the tenth amendment.  It reads:

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”[3]

Our federal government is limited to only the powers granted in the Constitution.  States retain their sovereignty and the powers granted in the various state constitutions.  More importantly, each citizen retains all other powers.  The ninth amendment reads:

“The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”[4]

Another way to think about this is we do not have laws telling us what is legal for a citizen to do; we have laws telling us what is illegal.  The Constitution, and its amendments, specifically limits the power of government regarding the particular rights addressed.  It does not limit citizens to only those rights.

Just what is a citizen anyway?  The Constitution, in its original form, did not address the issue specifically.  It does speak to the mechanics of counting people for determining representation, but not to the requirements to become a citizen in the first place.[5] Granting citizenship through immigration simply was not a priority as the nation was taking its first steps.

After the Civil war, with the end of slavery, the fourteenth amendment was adopted.  It states being born in the United States carried with it citizenship, but left the naturalization process for immigrants up to the legislature.  Clause 1 reads:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”[6]

How a person becomes naturalized is still not addressed within the Constitution.  Currently, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 covers naturalization.  According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ website[7], to gain naturalization an applicant must meet the following requirements:

  • Be 18 or older
  • Be a permanent resident (green card holder) for at least 5 years  immediately preceding the date of filing the Form N-400, Application for Naturalization
  • Have lived within the state, or USCIS district with jurisdiction over the applicant’s place of residence, for at least 3 months prior to the date of filing the application
  • Have continuous residence in the United States as a permanent resident for at least 5 years immediately preceding the date of the filing the application
  • Be physically present in the United States for at least 30 months out of the 5 years immediately preceding the date of filing the application
  • Reside continuously within the United States from the date of application for naturalization up to the time of naturalization
  • Be able to read, write, and speak English and have knowledge and an understanding of U.S. history and government (civics).
  • Be a person of good moral character, attached to the principles of the Constitution of the United States, and well disposed to the good order and happiness of the United States during  all relevant periods under the law

Becoming naturalized is a long and involved process.  There are exceptions, for instance individuals that join the military have a fast track to citizenship.

A person must either be born in the United States or go through a process to gain citizenship.  We have citizens by birth and by naturalization, but there is a third type of citizen, a corporate citizen.  As strange as it sounds, corporations in the United States enjoy many of the same rights as citizens of flesh and blood.  For example, if a corporation wrongs you, you sue it and not the stockholders.  The corporation, in this case, has the same legal standing as an individual.  When you think about it, it makes sense – just because a person owns a single share of IBM stock is no reason to drag them into court over an issue regarding the corporation.

Corporations may be citizens but they are limited ones.  If a citizen-person breaks the law, they go to prison.  There is no corporate body to send to jail.  The normal course of action is to levy a monetary fine.  This sort of issue highlights the problem of rights regarding corporations.  How rights apply to corporations and the constitutional implications affect all citizens daily.  A quick search of the Constitution shows the words corporation and business do not appear.  Given that, what makes a corporation a citizen?  Ironically, it is the same amendment that defines citizenship by birthright, the fourteenth amendment.

In 1886, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company[8]. The case dealt with a taxation issue.  California changed their state constitution to prevent railroad companies from deducting outstanding mortgage amounts from property values for tax purposes, something individuals were allowed.  The court sided with the railroads on the tax issue.  Part of the claim by Southern Pacific was the fourteenth amendment guaranteed them equal protection.  Technically, the court did not issue an opinion on the merits of that argument but found the state was wrong to apply such a tax.  Regardless, from that date on, corporations have claimed corporate “personhood,” and some of the rights of citizenship protected by the Constitution.

If ever you needed proof that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, this perversion of the fourteenth amendment provides it.  An amendment meant to protect the most vulnerable and disenfranchised citizens is used to protect the interests of powerful corporations.  That decision, 124 years ago, still affects every citizen today.  Its reach goes beyond the mundane issues of corporate taxation and interferes with the rights of real citizens, the ones with a heartbeat.

Corporations use this decision to remain beyond the reach of state governments regarding business regulations on many levels.  More directly, corporations claim a right to the first amendment protection of free speech.  Most recently, in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission the court found that corporations (both for profit and non-profit) and unions cannot be limited in political speech as specified in The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002[9], also know as The McCain-Feingold Act.  The result being by granting corporations the same right of free speech as individual citizens, they can spend virtually unlimited amounts of money to promote a particular point of view to the benefit of a particular candidate.

In effect, by granting corporations unfettered free speech rights, based on corporate personhood, individual citizens or candidates that do not hold a popular corporate or union view will receive no such support, effectively killing their right to equal access to the public.  Election costs are already out of control, this decision will drive them unbelievably higher still.

One solution is to treat corporations as individuals.  Simply throw away the corporate tax code and tax them as individuals with the same limited deductions real citizens face each tax season.  No longer allowed to write off expenses such as investment property or office space leases, billions of dollars would flow into the federal and state coffers.  Money used to pay for election related materials would remain taxable income.  People are not allowed to claim a non-profit status, remove it from corporations too, and tax them accordingly.  If corporations wish to be treated as people, they need to be taxed as people too.  Maybe then, they would have other matters to attend to than interfering with elections.

Of course, that idea is outrageous, but it further illustrates the problem with classifying corporations as citizens.  If they wish the rights of citizenship, they must carry the burdens of citizenship.  At the very least, limited corporate citizens should not enjoy rights real citizens do not have.  The right to raise and spend an unlimited amount of money to influence elections and policy matters undermines the very fabric of democracy.  It prevents real citizens from full and fair participation in elections and violates the first and fourteenth amendments by institutionalizing a “who can yell the loudest” mentality, thereby drowning out individual voices of dissension.

Only people born on the soil of the United States have a constitutional right to citizenship.  All other forms of citizenship are granted through legislation.  That legislation requires years of time and study for individuals to become citizens.  Corporations simply have to file some paperwork and pay a fee.  One has to wonder if a person here illegally gains the limited rights of citizenship by simply purchasing stock.  At the very least this Supreme Court decision granting unfettered first amendment rights to corporations gives foreign investors the means to legally influence U.S. federal elections.  They simply form a corporation, collect huge amounts of overseas money, pay the tax on it, and spend it.

In the end, by granting rights to corporations, rights of individuals are restricted.  Only extremely wealthy citizens like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have the ability to compete with our corporate citizens’ spending.  From now on, free speech is only for corporations and the super rich.  It’s been sold out from under the average citizen.  Do not act surprised when you wake up one morning to find the Constitution has changed to read “We the Corporations,” and it is the people with limited citizenship.


[1] “The Constitution of the United States,” Preamble.

 

[2] Ibid, Amendment I.

[3] Ibid, Amendment X.

[4] Ibid, Amendment IX.

[5] Ibid, Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3.

[6] Ibid, Amendment XIV, Clause 1.

[7] “USCIS – Citizenship Through Naturalization.” USCIS Home Page. Web. 02 July 2010. <http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.eb1d4c2a3e5b9ac89243c6a7543f6d1a/?vgnextoid=d84d6811264a3210VgnVCM100000b92ca60aRCRD&vgnextchannel=d84d6811264a3210VgnVCM100000b92ca60aRCRD>

[8] “SANTA CLARA COUNTY V. SOUTHERN PACIFIC R. CO., 118 U. S. 394 :: Volume 118 :: 1886 :: Full Text.” US Supreme Court Cases from Justia & Oyez. Web. 02 July 2010. <http://supreme.justia.com/us/118/394/case.html>.

[9] H.R. 2356, 107 Cong., Congressional Record (2002) (enacted). Print.

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4 comments

  1. I agree with you up to a point but i can see your anti corporation bias.Heres something you should take a look at…called foundations -The DiscoverTheNetworks database currently identifies and profiles more than 125 major foundations whose political and philanthropic orientations are generally leftist, and whose combined assets exceed $100 billion. AND this as well As of 2003, America’s top left-leaning foundations held $51 billion more in assets than their conservative counterparts (those that consistently funded groups promoting individual rights, a pro-market stance, and limited government).Should get more enlightened statistis here as well….on unions vs corporations the top 10 =7 are unions 1 gives to both…leaving 2…lol here take a look- http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/list.php .Not gonna argue a FEW corporate individuals are greedy.But no way do they compare to the 2 i just showed you.please dont defend them.Just make you look worse.


    • Did you even bother to read my post? Rather that try to paint the issue left or right why do you not defend corporations have right as people? If you take issue with my blog post, then that is what you should do. Try to stay on point next time how about it?


  2. This is the greatest nonsenese I ever heared off.


    • I assume you mean “ever heard of.” Rather than throw a undefined comment like that, I invite you to take a few minutes and put together a cohesive argument in reply.



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