What is a corporation? Are corporations people? Do corporations have rights? These are big questions that have been raised over the last few years. “Can a corporation have a religion?” asked a Salon article from November, in reference to the Supreme Court case between Hobby Lobby and the Department of Health and Human Services over the contraception mandate. “What constitutional rights should corporations have?” said a New York Times editorial from 2009, referencing the Citizens United case.
A corporation is a legal entity created to protect the assets of a group’s shareholders. For example, if you were to start a shipping company with your brother, you would probably organize it as a corporation. In the event you damaged a pricey object you were shipping or, God forbid, one of your truck drivers caused an accident, the corporation protects your personal assets. This means that the plaintiff could only go after the company’s assets in the event of a lawsuit (such as the garage you store your truck in, the equipment you own to maintain the trucks, the trucks themselves, etc.) and not any of the owners personal assets (such as their house or car).
However useful a corporation may be, we must still ask: are corporations people? What Constitutionally-guaranteed rights, if any, protect these entities?
Despite their insistence that corporations are not people and are thus not allowed the same protections that people have, liberals still talk like corporations are people. Case in point: a “corporate tax” can only be borne by people, since people are the only things that can pay taxes. The copier machines or the carpet in a corporation’s building cannot pay taxes. Nor can the paperwork that constitutes the corporation pay those taxes. But even as liberals decry corporate personhood, they still demand higher corporate tax rates. In this way, liberals seem to believe that corporations are subject, like people, to the Sixteenth Amendment.
Obviously corporations cannot vote like people can, but does that mean they don’t receive other protections? The New York Times, which argued in the editorial I mentioned earlier that corporations are not the same as people, is in fact a corporation called The New York Times Company. If corporations do not have rights, doesn’t that jeopardize the newspaper’s operations? The New York Times wouldn’t have the freedom of press and freedom of speech protections which are so vital to a free country. If the New York Times editors who wrote that editorial believe that corporations do not have rights, does that mean that President Obama or Secretary Kerry could order them not to publish an editorial critical of the administration’s foreign policy?
If corporations don’t have rights, does that mean they aren’t protected under other amendments like, let’s say, the Third Amendment? Could the National Guard force a company like Costco or Wal-Mart to allow them house their troops in their stores? Corporations allegedly don’t have rights, so Wal-Mart wouldn’t be protected. Right?
These are real questions that we should ponder when addressing the issue of corporate personhood. Corporations are not people in and of themselves, but corporations have many of the same rights that people do. Corporations have the right to freedom of speech, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and freedom from the quartering of soldiers, just to name a few examples.
We don’t sacrifice our personal rights just because we choose to go into business.
Matthew Lamb | Loyola University | @mlmb24