Corporations are now acquiring the rights of people.
In 1844, the Supreme Court first treated corporations as human when, in Louisville, Cincinnati & Charleston R. Co. v. Lesson 43 U.S. 497 (1844), the Court determined that corporations were “Citizens” of the state in which they were incorporated. In the late 1800’s these rights were expanded protecting corporations from ithe unlawful seizure of corporate property. In 1906, in Hale v. Henkel, like people, corporations needed to be protected from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment. More recently, in United States v. Martin Linen Supply Co. (1977), the Supreme Court further expanded the rights of corporations by expanding the double jeopardy rule to include both humans and corporations.
In Citizens United v. FEC. (2010) the Supreme Court recognized that corporations enjoy the right to free speech. The Court held that, since corporations and people enjoy the same legal rights, the government can’t limit a corporation’s independent political donations. The Citizens United ruling was the greatest expansion of corporate personhood to date.
After giving Corporations the right to free speech, in the Hobby Lobby case, the Court held that privately held corporations have religious rights. The government argued that corporations do not “engage” in the exercise of religion. Corporations don’t pray; they don’t go to church; they don’t practice a religion. The Supreme Court disagreed. Corporations can now assert the religious rights, the rights of their owners.
What does it mean if corporations are people? It means that they have all the legal rights of citizens. If they have absolute right to free speech, can we regulate advertising? Can we regulate corporate behaviors? Can we impose safety standards on them, or like people, can we only react to bad behavior after the fact?
In the alternative, if a corporation commits a crime, are the people who run it exempt from prosecution? On July 17th, 2014,Federal Express was indicted by a federal grand jury for knowingly trafficking drugs for illegal online pharmacies. It is interesting to note that while the “corporation” knew it was trafficking in illegal drugs, not one of the corporate officers was charged with this crime, even though they too had knowledge of these acts. The corporation did it, not the people who ran it. To put this in perspective, if you were charged and convicted of this crime, a first offense of distributing synthetic drugs would carry a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence. While everyday citizens would be incarcerated for acting in an identical way to Federal Express, businesses, corporations and the people who own and manage them grow increasingly bulletproof.
Ultimately, the more corporations obtain the rights of citizens, the less ability we have to impose regulations upon them that we do not impose upon all our citizens.