If corporations are people does that make me a corporation?

By a 5-4 margin and sparked by the quasi-film/political ad “Hillary: the Movie,” the Supreme Court has issued a broad ruling overturning all restrictions on campaign donations by corporations and unions. That’s thirty-plus years of legal precedent out the window. Pitt’s School of Law provides a cooler tone in their assessment. And here’s the New York Times article Justices, 5-4, Reject Corporate Spending Limit. Their editorial says the Supreme Court has thrust politics back to the robber-baron era of the 19th century.” Fun.

To my reading it means no limits of any kind except for disclosure. Exxon, for example, used to be limited in how much they could donate to political campaigns and they were restricted from using general company funds for political advocacy (meaning they had to raise it internally from employees). They now have no restrictions and can spend as much as they want to and however they wish. (I’m imagining some stock holders might not be thrilled about this depending on how much money they end up spending.)

I’m not a lawyer and need to learn more about this, but at the core of the decision is the claim that a corporation has the same rights to free speech as a person. How did that come to pass?

My understanding is this assertion has its roots in a curious interpretation of the 14th Amendment (1868) which overruled the Dred Scott decision with the intent of, among other things, providing equal protection under the law to African-Americans, immigrants and pretty much anyone who wasn’t a wealthy, land-holding white male. Over the years, it has been used repeatedly by corporations claiming their rights are infringed by various regulations — I believe it’s been used more often for that purpose than its intended one. The most famous and relevant example being Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, 118 U.S. 994 (1886) in which the judge included in the decision an obiter dictumasserting that corporations had the same rights as human beings.

(I had to look that up: an obiter dictum is a non-binding comment included by the judge in the decision, an aside. It’s not intended to be precedent-setting yet in this case and others certainly was.)

I’m not looking to give government the power to decide what is and what isn’t appropriate speech but I find these assertions shocking and little more than sophistry, intentional naïveté and linguistic hijinks intended to paint a varnish of populism over legal interpretations which, in reality, exist to defend the powerful. (Not that I have an opinion or anything.) Asserting Exxon or United HealthCare should be viewed in the eyes of the law in a way equal to, well, me is like saying I am somehow as equally influential as Exxon or United HealthCare. I’m pretty sure this isn’t true.

I’ve read and heard the defendants of the decision but this decision’s heritage is in taking a law aimed at a more equitable society and manipulating it to have the opposite effect.

Good job, team. High fives all around.


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