Corporations Aren’t People, Money Isn’t Speech: Citizens United & the Heresy of Corporate Personhood

Corporations Aren’t People, Money Isn’t Speech: Citizens United & the Heresy of Corporate Personhood September 20, 2014

CUMore Americans believe in witchcraft, ghosts, and UFOs than agree with Citizens United. When 80% of the people agree on an important issue & the leaders refuse to act, something has to change. I’m for finding a peaceful solution.

Citizen’s United refers to a 2010 Supreme Court case on how elections are financed. The ruling said that corporations are people, and money is speech. You can’t limit free speech. So corporations should be able to spend money (speech) like people do.

But we limit speech all the time. You can’t say bomb on a plane. You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater. Over three-fourths of the people (not counting corporations) in our society believe that corporations shouldn’t get to speak so loudly at election time.

Here’s how this affects you and me. Let’s say Snuffy Smith is running for the U.S. Senate. You like Snuffy & want to help him get elected. You scrape together $2,600, which is the legal limit for a person, and give it to his campaign. Gigantor Corp. doesn’t like Snuffy. So they take $26 million and give it to a “super” PAC called Snuff Snuffy, which spends all $25 million on attack ads which you have to watch for months. Your name appears on a public donor list, but Gigantor’s donation is secret. They can say, “Donation? What donation?”

How much does your speech ($2,600 worth), matter compared to the $26 million worth of free speech that Gigantor Corp. purchased? Snuffy’s going down.

Citizens United actually inhibits free speech.

Now if you were uber-rich, you could also spend all you want on a “super” PAC, too. But most of us don’t have that luxury. Corporations can generate political capital in ways that people can’t. They actually usurp the rights of people and undermine the democratic process.

80% of the people in this society think this is a bad idea. There’s a lot of polling on this issue, and it’s pretty convincing. The problem is that the Supreme Court is too political–as in “brought to you by Nabisco, General Electric, Wall Street, and Big Oil”–four very powerful “people.” Only a third of the citizenry believe that Justices make decisions on the law alone. Most believe it has become a political process.

Hence the petition to make a constitutional amendment outlawing the tenets of Citizens United. It’s the only way the Supreme Court can’t get around the will of the people. Elections should be publicly funded in this country. Lobbying the government should be much more difficult than it currently is. Lobbying should happen in public and there should be ZERO money involved.

What really gets to me, though, is the personhood part. The theology bothers me because it devalues human life. Personhood is sacred to the Christian, something we receive from the creator, and from each other. Personhood needs to be protected and understood. This concept is basic to the Christian story. Here’s an excerpt from An Evangelical Social Gospel? where I talk about what it means to be a person:

The person refers to a human being, as opposed to an animal or a thing, who is defined by their association to the larger group of people…What makes us human is our participation in humanity.

The classic philosophical statement of this view can be found in G.H. Mead’s Mind, Self, and Society. The argument contained in Mead’s book, which was published in 1934, is compelling. The point I want to accentuate here is that the human awareness of “the self ” naturally comes through an experience of “the other.” The preeminent American theologian Stanley hauerwas sums up Mead’s argument by saying, “The self is fundamentally social. We are not individuals who come into contact with others and then decide our various levels of social involvement. our individuality is possible only because we are first of all social beings. I know who I am only in relation to others, and, indeed, who I am is a relation with others. The ‘self ’ names not a thing, but a relation.”

This is the relational view of personhood. What defines me as a person is not my individuality or uniqueness, but my essential connectedness to other people. The only way I can tell who I am as a person—or discern that I exist at all—is in relationship to other people and to God. Personal existence is necessarily social.

Personhood is sacred. A corporation isn’t a person, it’s a thing. It shouldn’t be treated like a person. Any society that calls a corporation–an entity that exists with the sole purpose of profit–a person, is devaluing what it means to be human. That’s not just an ethical issue, this is deep down in the faith of the Christian, and our experience of what it means to be a human.

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  • richardsloat

    Money is not speech but the power to buy speech also access. And as the article says corporations have no moral obligation to help society only to make money. The flood of money into our democratic debate since Citizens United has hurt our democracy by tilting the playing field. If there was a debate where one side could have an hour to talk and the ten minutes we would call that debate unfair. Time to elect politicians that pledge to restore some balance to our democratic discourse.

    My video is now on YouTube. It is a political
    satire, entitled “Washington Money Talk”. Here is the

  • Striker

    It was established before Citizens United that corporate speech is entitled to protection under the First Amendment. Moreover, to clear this up once and for all, Citizens United did not hold that corporations are persons. It was not necessary to do so, because the First Amendment protects the “freedom of speech,” not a “person’s freedom of speech.” As Justice Scalia pointed out, there is no compelling reason why A by himself would have his speech protected, but when he associates with B, A and B’s speech loses protection solely because of the kind of association they have formed. Thus, what Citizens United held was that political speech could not be discriminated against based solely on the fact it was corporate speech. And “corporate” is understood broadly to include charities and unions.

    More generally, whenever the law happens to define a corporation as a “person,” it is a device for convenience or efficiency, not a metaphysical pronouncement. The law does not have the power to bestow actual personhood on corporations, any more than it has the power to turn a frog into Prince Charming.

    And then we come to public funding of elections. Yes, it is “public” in that our money shall fund candidates. But, since there can never be enough money to go around, somehow it must be decided who gets funded and who does not. Do you see the problem? You have effectively created an election before the election. Additionally, since we know money will go to candidates you or I would not support, our money effectively has been put to use without our consent. To make it even worse, these difficulties will be “resolved” by bureaucrats with the help of regulations promulgated under the watchful eye of incumbents. So, in the end, “public” funding devolves into government-sponsored elections, that is, government-rigged elections. And I’m sure someone will say, “It won’t happen here!” To which I say, “Don’t bet your corporate dollars on that!”

    • Michael Wilson

      Thanks for taking the time to explain the problems here. There is a lot of silliness when people tslk about citzens united. The proposed solutions are just ways for some factions to silence voices they disagree with.

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    • BT

      Up until CU, though, the first amendment rights were not fully extended to corps. Corporations had rights to “commercial speech” which existed within narrower constraints.

      CU did open the floodgates to private, anonymous means to flood the system with money but in and of itself isn’t the most damaging thing until combined with IRS rules that allow for dark money where the sources of the cash are not public.

      The combination of unlimited money and secrecy are indeed quite toxic to democracy.

      Edit: the fallacy in the comment that person B loses his speech rights when he affiliates with Person A is immense.

      Person B doesn’t lose his speech rights absent Citizens United. He can speak as an individual as much as he likes. Prior to CU, what he didn’t have was the ability to use a corporation’s resources to speak on behalf of a group of shareholders who may or may not share Person A and Person B’s opinions.

      • “Up until CU, though, the first amendment rights were not fully extended to corps.”

        Corporations always were considered part of “the press.” How many court decisions about freedom of the press have had corporations as defendants? Newspapers, magazines, book publishers, movie distributors.

        • BT

          No. General Motors and the New York Times had never been granted equal status.


          The organizations you cite are media organizations through whom others voice THEIR speech. Those corporate entities as themselves when not representing the speech of others enjoyed no such equal status.

          Do more homework.

          • BT

            Example: GM’s CEO writes a memo about a government contract with a competitor and reveals some government secret it wasn’t supposed to know. The memo gets put in a local newspaper.

            The government can subpoena the GM CEO easily, whereas the bar doing so for the newspaper or publisher it TV station is significantly different and faces more rigor.

          • If so, that’s because of his role as CEO of GM and involvement in government contracts, not because of any difference between media and non-media corporations. That line is infamously hard to draw, given that a) involvement in media makes a corporation a media corporationa, and b) how intertwined corporate ownership is. GE still owns shares of MSNBC. More, were the courts to get into the business of drawing such a line, that would be a dangerous 1st amendment restriction. “Ah, NYT, yes you have a long history of publishing a newspaper, so you’re covered by freedom of the press. The ACLU? Not so much.” Do you really want courts deciding that?

            The Supreme Court isn’t going to get into the business of trying to draw a distinction between a media corporation and a non-media corporation. In the Citizens United ruling, it said that explicitly. From about the third page: “Differential treatment of media corporations and other corporations cannot be squared with the First Amendment.”

          • BT

            That last bit is why I think CU is bad law. Difficult doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

  • BT

    Personally, I think unlimited political money violates a key idea behind the principal of one man / one vote. There is an egalitarian value behind it that says each man’s vote should be of equal value.

    Yet, when almost 1/3 of campaign money comes from under .001% of the population, there is a class of people that can not only vote but can also help determine who gets to run and even get on the ballot. (And the .001% figure doesn’t even include the dark money contributions which would likely further exacerbate the problem.)

  • Deborah Kukal

    The distinction holds. Realistically, corporations as we know them today were not addressed in the First Amendment, simply because their scope–including their multinational scope–was only beginning to be developed at that time.

    When any people band together as group, that group should function under the same rules as any other other group of individuals who want to make a political statement. And that should include realistic limits (yes, difficult to determine!) to allow presentation of a variety of ideas. Including many I won’t like.

    It is true that those with the most money will have the most power in this world. But we cannot be blind to that. It’s true that we will never resolve this issue in this life. But we’re still called to defend widows and orphans, to function in truth, to act for justice, and to be open to accountability for what we do.

  • Steve Pålsson

    It is correct to argue that speech cannot be regulated purely because it is corporate. I think legislation would be possible to get what CU usiually claims to want.

    I doubt that it would be unconstitutional to put some limits on the political speech of limited-liability, for-profit, publicly-traded corporations based on the facts that:
    1. Limited liability is a special privilege granted by the government with many conditions attached. It was inherent in the nature of limited liability corporations for the owners to give up some rights to gains privileges from the government, and those limits, including speech limits, have been placed on corporations historically right from the beginning. A company has a right to organize as a normal partnership without wheedling any privileges from the government, in which case I think limiting the company’s speech would be the same as limiting the owners’ speech.
    2. Limited liability corporations are creatures of statute. The government invented the limited-liability corporation in order to promote the public good. They are not entirely private the way ordinary business partnerships are.
    3. The owners of publicly traded for-profit corporations, especially the larger they are, are remote enough from the management of the corporations that political advocacy is likely to be an infringement on many of the owners’ free speech by using their money to promote political positions in their name, that they disagree with.

    In general corporations do have legal rights like persons, or one might say, must legally be treated as if they have the rights that persons have, because they are owned by real actual persons. And in general it would be a violation of the right of freedom of speech to prevent them from political advocacy. But in the special limited category I’ve defined above, it can often be a greater violation of the owners’ free-speech rights for the corporation per se to be treated as if it had free speech in every way a real person does.

    Both sides of the debate are wrong. This isn’t black-and-white. A good constitutional law could be written that would achieve the (stated) ends of CU. On the other hand, I have little faith in legislatures nowadays to right good law, or executives to execute it.

  • It wasn’t just Citizens United which gave the impression that the Supreme Court had granted certain rights of personal speech to corporations. The Hobby Lobby decision has now allowed closely held corporations to refuse to abide by certain laws if in so doing the religious convictions of the majority owners are violated. The Supreme Court has effectively destroyed the “corporate veil” by allowing the personal feelings of the owners to become the personal feelings of the corporation. When the employee receives notice that she cannot receive coverage for a contraceptive through the company’s health plan, it is not explained that the refusal to do so is because CEO David Green is morally offended by such an act. It is Hobby Lobby which signs the notification, and it is Hobby Lobby which is morally offended and considers the contraceptive an abortifacient. The corporation is now invested with a moral conscience, and a sense of evil, which is a far more significant development than the question of the right of a corporation to exercise public speech over business matters like trade policy or levels of taxation. I think Tim Suttle is absolutely right. Personhood as applied to humans is devalued when it is applied to legal entities, as the Supreme Court has now done.

    • scott stone

      Could you expand on your comment which includes “and a sense of evil….?” I’m curious what you are attributing “evil” to.

      • If a corporation has an inherent right to declare something sinful, as in a violation of their moral standards (which is what the Greens asserted in Hobby Lobby), then the corporation has to have a sense of good and evil to judge what is sinful and what is not

  • Josh

    Your theological critique is based on a misunderstanding of the actual holding in the case. Perhaps if people took the time to understand the decision instead of latching on to a politician’s ill-advised soundbite in its defense, it would poll higher. Oh well. Either way, let’s examine a few more of the practical impacts of banning corporate speech, instead of just the one isolated instance you cite. And I won’t even pick the lowest-hanging fruit.

    Say I, as a citizen, want to defend my 2nd amendment rights, or my reproductive rights. I don’t have much cash, so I can’t do much on my own. I donate to the NRA or Planned Parenthood to amplify my donation by combining it with others. Not anymore, because those entities are corporations too. Even in your example, the millionaire can still swamp my political speech because he can donate the maximum allowable amount to every candidate, then go out and buy airtime with his pocket change. He doesn’t HAVE to form a corporation to buy commercials. Corporations are only necessary when you join with other individuals, which an ultra-wealthy person doesn’t have to do. They only use corporate vehicles at the moment, because it is convenient. I will ALWAYS have to bundle my money with others to make it count, so losing that option hurts me far more than it hurts (insert whichever sides billionaires you like to vilify here).

    Oh, and think tanks are also corporations. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace had better not publish anything that could be interpreted as advocacy. Same goes for the New York Times/Washington Post/Fox News/CNN-or should I say The New York Times Company, Nash Holdings LLC, The News Corporation, and Time Warner Incorporated.

  • Average Joe

    The fact that “more Americans believe in witchcraft, ghosts, and UFOs than agree with Citizens United,” is hardly a sound reason to change the law. What it suggests is that Americans are highly superstitious and irrational, and shouldn’t be trusted to dictate policy on issues as important as free speech.

  • Steve Morgan

    I agree but if we say corporations aren’t people why tax them?

  • Bruce Mathwig

    So you mention this sort of thing when it benefits conservatives but, liberals billionairs like George Soros do the same thing. It is how Obama got elected.

  • Michael

    I don’t know why it is so hard for some people to understand but legally, corporations actually are considered to have many of the same rights as individuals. It stems from contract law and is a necessary aspect of a capitalist society. This does not mean actual flesh and blood people as some on the left seem to portray it. The Citizens United decision has got to be one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented SCOTUS decisions ever. It is constantly villified and derided by liberals who show no understanding of what the decision actually means but show plenty of hypocrisy when the political money and speech originates with the unions.