The People’s Rights Amendment

House Democrats have introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would specify that the rights guaranteed by that document apply only to individuals and not to “corporate” entities.  The intention is to undo the Supreme Court’s ruling that allows organizations to spend unlimited money on political campaigns since they have free speech.  But a “corporation” is not just a business organization.  The Amendment–introduced by Jim McGovern (D-Mass) and co-sponsored by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, 26 other Democrats, and one Republican–would have far-reaching consequences, as George Will points out:

[McGovern's]  “People’s Rights Amendment” declares that the Constitution protects only the rights of “natural persons,” not such persons organized in corporations, and that Congress can impose on corporations whatever restrictions Congress deems “reasonable.” His amendment says that it shall not be construed “to limit the people’s rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free exercise of religion, freedom of association and all such other rights of the people, which rights are inalienable.” But 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.

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, by the Sierra Club, the National Rifle Association, NARAL Pro-Choice America or any of the other tens of thousands of nonprofit corporate advocacy groups, including political parties and campaign committees.

Newspapers, magazines, broadcasting entities, online journalism operations — and most religious institutions — are corporate entities. McGovern’s amendment would strip them of all constitutional rights. By doing so, the amendment would empower the government to do much more than proscribe speech. Ilya Somin of George Mason University Law School, writing for the Volokh Conspiracy blog, notes that government, 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.

The proposed amendment is intended to reverse the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which affirmed the right of persons to associate in corporate entities for the purpose of unrestricted collective speech independent of candidates’ campaigns. The court’s decision was foreshadowed when, in oral argument, the government’s lawyer insisted that the government could ban a 500-page book that contained one sentence that said “vote for” a particular candidate. McGovern’s amendment would confer upon Congress the power to ban publishing corporations from producing books containing political advocacy, when Congress considers a ban reasonable — never mind the amendment’s rhetoric about the “inalienable” rights people enjoy until they band together to act in corporate entities.

via Taking a scythe to the Bill of Rights – The Washington Post.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • SKPeterson

    I wonder if McGovern took his cue from the wonderfully rights-laden constitution of the old Soviet Union.

  • SKPeterson

    I wonder if McGovern took his cue from the wonderfully rights-laden constitution of the old Soviet Union.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Gene – unrelated, but here’s a serious, but entertaining, look at the US presidential campaign from a leading Canadian journalist – http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2012/05/08/f-rfa-macdonald-kickoff.html

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Gene – unrelated, but here’s a serious, but entertaining, look at the US presidential campaign from a leading Canadian journalist – http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2012/05/08/f-rfa-macdonald-kickoff.html

  • http://www.yespeak.com njbolzman

    The Amendment may not be the way to go, but the underlying issue of corporate personhood is one that conservatives should stop automatically defending.

    http://www.yespeak.com/2012/05/natural-rights-for-unnatural-beings.html

  • http://www.yespeak.com njbolzman

    The Amendment may not be the way to go, but the underlying issue of corporate personhood is one that conservatives should stop automatically defending.

    http://www.yespeak.com/2012/05/natural-rights-for-unnatural-beings.html

  • SKPeterson

    Corporations exist primarily for two reasons: joint and several liability and capital investment. That is one thing that the post nj @3 references does not address. However, that post does bring up an interesting argumentative point – the Founding Fathers had a deep mistrust of corporations. Left on its own, that fact could provide ample cover for conservatives to support a Persons Rights amendment. However, the corporations that the Founding Fathers were so mistrustful of are not of the same degree as modern corporations. The word is the same, the conditions and legal privileges are not.

    What the Founding Fathers were mistrustful of were Crown corporations (such as the Hudson Bay Company, the East India Company, etc.) that were granted special monopoly privileges by the Crown. As such these corporations were the 17th, 18th and 19th century poster children for crony capitalism. Understandably, our early forebears were decidedly against such corporate privileges; particularly gentlemen such as John Hancock who made his fortune as a less-than-legal importer of goods to the colonies.

    Much of the animus behind the Persons Rights Amendment is the persistent belief that corporations and businesses routinely “buy” politicians. They decry the prevalence of money in our elections. No one asks why businesses and corporations might even need to influence politicians – it is because they are consistently facing regulatory pressure from labor or environmental groups, or because their rivals have found that political entrepreneurship often rewards payoffs to politicians more than product development. Firms find they can spend far less to commandeer the political and regulatory structure of the government to harm their rivals than they would have to spend actually competing with those rivals (see Sun Microsystems and the governments subsequent actions against Microsoft for example; see how Microsoft learned to “lawyer and lobbyist up” and how it now is willing to use this apparatus to have the regulators go after Google). So, we have the unseemly mess we have now.

    The answer isn’t a Persons Rights Amendment. It is a government that simultaneously draws back from imposing regulatory burdens on corporations, while also pulling back on providing corporate welfare through regulation and subsidy. If you want less corporate money influencing the outcome of elections, stop the government from too heavily influencing the competitive outcomes of the market. If you increase interference by the government in the marketplace, then you will spur greater amounts of corporate money to be spent on elections to influence the scope and scale of that interference.

  • SKPeterson

    Corporations exist primarily for two reasons: joint and several liability and capital investment. That is one thing that the post nj @3 references does not address. However, that post does bring up an interesting argumentative point – the Founding Fathers had a deep mistrust of corporations. Left on its own, that fact could provide ample cover for conservatives to support a Persons Rights amendment. However, the corporations that the Founding Fathers were so mistrustful of are not of the same degree as modern corporations. The word is the same, the conditions and legal privileges are not.

    What the Founding Fathers were mistrustful of were Crown corporations (such as the Hudson Bay Company, the East India Company, etc.) that were granted special monopoly privileges by the Crown. As such these corporations were the 17th, 18th and 19th century poster children for crony capitalism. Understandably, our early forebears were decidedly against such corporate privileges; particularly gentlemen such as John Hancock who made his fortune as a less-than-legal importer of goods to the colonies.

    Much of the animus behind the Persons Rights Amendment is the persistent belief that corporations and businesses routinely “buy” politicians. They decry the prevalence of money in our elections. No one asks why businesses and corporations might even need to influence politicians – it is because they are consistently facing regulatory pressure from labor or environmental groups, or because their rivals have found that political entrepreneurship often rewards payoffs to politicians more than product development. Firms find they can spend far less to commandeer the political and regulatory structure of the government to harm their rivals than they would have to spend actually competing with those rivals (see Sun Microsystems and the governments subsequent actions against Microsoft for example; see how Microsoft learned to “lawyer and lobbyist up” and how it now is willing to use this apparatus to have the regulators go after Google). So, we have the unseemly mess we have now.

    The answer isn’t a Persons Rights Amendment. It is a government that simultaneously draws back from imposing regulatory burdens on corporations, while also pulling back on providing corporate welfare through regulation and subsidy. If you want less corporate money influencing the outcome of elections, stop the government from too heavily influencing the competitive outcomes of the market. If you increase interference by the government in the marketplace, then you will spur greater amounts of corporate money to be spent on elections to influence the scope and scale of that interference.

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com ChrisB

    I don’t get the objection. People have the right to assemble and petition. If they can petition after they’ve assembled, that should cover corporations.

  • http://homewardbound-cb.blogspot.com ChrisB

    I don’t get the objection. People have the right to assemble and petition. If they can petition after they’ve assembled, that should cover corporations.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Two things about this:

    1.) Does this apply to unions, activist organizations, and other formal groups?

    2.) Do the proponents of this bill realize that they are strengthening the position of gun ownership as an individual right through this bill?

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    Two things about this:

    1.) Does this apply to unions, activist organizations, and other formal groups?

    2.) Do the proponents of this bill realize that they are strengthening the position of gun ownership as an individual right through this bill?

  • DonS

    Of course, though it is misleadingly couched in “peoples” language, the very purpose of this proposed amendment is to entrench the powerful. Freedom of speech is ineffectual if it is limited to your right to stand on the corner and shout your views. To have politically effective free speech, you must buy media. George Soros and his ilk can afford to buy media by themselves, but most of us need to pool our resources to do so. We pool our resources by assembling together and forming a common entity, a corporation (cue the scary music) to create the message and buy media time to share it with others.

    Of course, the goal is to have the public think of Haliburton (more scary music) when the nasty word “corporation” is used. However, the Citizens United case was about a non-profit political advocacy group, supported by regular people, being denied the right to create and distribute a political movie about Hilary Clinton because it was too close to an election. That is the kind of free speech these people really want to squelch.

  • DonS

    Of course, though it is misleadingly couched in “peoples” language, the very purpose of this proposed amendment is to entrench the powerful. Freedom of speech is ineffectual if it is limited to your right to stand on the corner and shout your views. To have politically effective free speech, you must buy media. George Soros and his ilk can afford to buy media by themselves, but most of us need to pool our resources to do so. We pool our resources by assembling together and forming a common entity, a corporation (cue the scary music) to create the message and buy media time to share it with others.

    Of course, the goal is to have the public think of Haliburton (more scary music) when the nasty word “corporation” is used. However, the Citizens United case was about a non-profit political advocacy group, supported by regular people, being denied the right to create and distribute a political movie about Hilary Clinton because it was too close to an election. That is the kind of free speech these people really want to squelch.

  • Jacob

    Wow, our communists are really at it. Imagine what fun Nixon would have had with this. The watergate break-in itself could have been leagal if they broke into an office that was part of a corporation. A doctor’s office, a lawyer’s office, a newspaper’s office – you name it – would have no protection. Just send in the secret police to spy on your enemies or to confiscate an unfavorable news story. You might be allowed to carry a sign saying, “Impeach Nixon” after you are given a lengthy, expensive and invasive investigation to see whether you are in violation of some arcane campaign finance law. Maybe all speech could be assumed to be “corporate” but you will be free to sue the government and maybe the court will decide that your “Impeach Nixon” sign is not a corporate threat to democracy, especially with the case decided long after the election. We can’t have people as part of a corporation investigating Watergate. The government can be trusted to tell a newspaper what to say. You can say whatever you want in the privacy of your home, but if you join with other people who want to impeach Nixon, well, you are a threat to “democracy” then.

  • Jacob

    Wow, our communists are really at it. Imagine what fun Nixon would have had with this. The watergate break-in itself could have been leagal if they broke into an office that was part of a corporation. A doctor’s office, a lawyer’s office, a newspaper’s office – you name it – would have no protection. Just send in the secret police to spy on your enemies or to confiscate an unfavorable news story. You might be allowed to carry a sign saying, “Impeach Nixon” after you are given a lengthy, expensive and invasive investigation to see whether you are in violation of some arcane campaign finance law. Maybe all speech could be assumed to be “corporate” but you will be free to sue the government and maybe the court will decide that your “Impeach Nixon” sign is not a corporate threat to democracy, especially with the case decided long after the election. We can’t have people as part of a corporation investigating Watergate. The government can be trusted to tell a newspaper what to say. You can say whatever you want in the privacy of your home, but if you join with other people who want to impeach Nixon, well, you are a threat to “democracy” then.


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