Despite widespread protests, corporations are people

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While the question of whether corporations are people is a confusing one, it has a simple answer. The source of the question’s complexity is that corporations need to be viewed through two different lenses. The first view is that of the corporation as a singular entity. In that case, the answer is very clear: Corporations are not people. They can’t vote, they can’t hold office, they can’t get a driver’s license and so on. The second is as groups of people. In that case, groups of people are given almost the same rights as each individual member. If a person can practice their religion, a group of people too can practice that religion; if a person can have weapons, a group of people can also have the same weapons. Your individual rights, generally, are not diminished because the person next to you is doing the exact same thing (Black’s Law Dictionary, “Corporation,” 1910).

This goes for speech rights as well. Let’s say that you want to express your thoughts on a topic. Just because there are other people who have expressed the same opinion doesn’t make it pointless for you to contribute your own voice. In that context, a group of people can band together to express a sentiment, and the government shouldn’t be allowed to muzzle them simply because they did it under the banner of a single entity. That’s basically how the NAACP, the ACLU and the NRA work. Sure, Walmart, Amazon and Google may have different structures and they are motivated by profit rather than what they think is the public good. However, they are still groups of people and should legally be treated as such.

Do you remember the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its sister legislation the Protect IP Act (PIPA)? They were designed to help limit online piracy and allowed websites to be taken offline if a judge found that the site was illegally distributing copyrighted works (Forbes, “What Are SOPA and PIPA And Why All The Fuss?” 01.18.2012).

In response to SOPA and PIPA, several internet sites “blacked-out” themselves to raise awareness of the bill and its terrible side effects. These websites included internet behemoths like Wikipedia, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, XKCD and even the mighty Google. Together, these corporations spoke out against the bill and, thanks to the public outcry created, killed the potential legislation entirely (CBS News, “PIPA, SOPA put on hold in wake of protests,” 01.20.2012). These companies could do this because they had speech rights. Corporations have these rights not because they are people, but because they are comprised of people.

To understand what it would be like to live in a world where corporations aren’t given speech rights, you have to imagine one in which a company could be fined or shutdown for anything it says. Suppose Google says that it doesn’t want work on government drone projects anymore. In our world, it is tough luck for the government; in the other, Google is fined until it agrees. Suppose that The New York Times publishes an ad disparaging a racist government official and gets sued by that official for defamation. In our world, the accused government official loses the lawsuit. In the other, The New York Times has to pay millions in damages, because as a corporation, it wouldn’t inherently have a right to publish anything (Library of Congress, “New York Times Co. v Sullivan,” 03.09.1964). These are the unfortunate implications of saying that corporations don’t have a right to speak.

Moreover, the right to freedom of expression is more than just telling the government “no.” Part of it is associating with people you want to associate with and not associating with those you don’t. This freedom is what gives websites like Twitter the ability to ban those who don’t fit its community standards. For example, Twitter banned almost every account of alt-right-grifter/angry-meat-bag Alex Jones because they didn’t want him around. That’s not censorship; that’s a group of people operating together saying that they don’t want to hang around this other person.

Is the system perfect? No. One of the implications of companies being able speak on issues about which they care is that they can spend a whole lot of money supporting causes that help their own interests. Whether money is speech is a separate topic, but the important thing to note is that it is very hard to reduce a group’s freedom without severely reducing those same rights among individuals. Yes, corporations have much more resources than individual people, but we have to remember that they don’t have much more influence compared to the number of people that support that corporation. We also have to remember that we have a right to assemble, and corporations are just a product of that. Having a right to assemble, and then having no rights once assembled would be as asinine as owning a glass of water but not being allowed to drink it.

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