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'We the People' versus 'We the Corporation': Sentiment Builds for Banning Corporate Personhood, But Tough Road Ahead.

How far should a constitutional amendment go to roll back corporate rights? And is it possible?

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Colvin supports the recent amendment proposal by Rep. Ted Deutch, D-FL, that restricts constitutional rights of for-profit corporations but carves out an exception for non-profits.

But Bonifaz, in contrast, believes that all corporations, whether for-profit or non-profit, should not be awarded the same rights as people under the Constitution.

“Remember, Citizens United was a non-profit,” he said, referring to the advocacy organization that wanted to distribute an anti-Hillary Clinton video before 2008 primaries with financial support of corporate backers. That was not allowed under the federal McCain-Feingold campaign finance law and was challenged, ending up in the Supreme Court.

Bonifaz said it would be risky to carve out exception for some corporations, even non-profits, because that could open up loopholes that would be abused by interests with the means and motives to do so. He countered that non-profits and some unions (not all are organized as corporations) would not be threatened under the broader proposal he and Congressman McGovern supports.

“Individual members of non-profits maintain all of the rights guaranteed to people under the Constitution. They do not need the artificial form of a corporation – for-profit or non-profit – to assert their individual constitutional rights,” he said. “The fundamental question here is whether we elevate corporations to have the same rights of people under the Constitution or whether we restore democracy and our Constitution to the people.”

The Debate Continues

While progressives will continue to debate what constitutional rights corporations should have, it is important to remember what supporters of corporate constitutional rights have said.

Chief Justice John Roberts, during arguments in the Citizens United case before the high court ruled, said, “A large corporation, just like an individual, has many diverse interests.” In the same hearings, Justice Antonin Scalia said corporations are “indistinguishable from the individual that owns them.” And pro-corporate activists, such as Center for Conservative Politics founder and chairman Bradley Smith,  said corporations are bodies made up of individual people with “ attendant free-speech rights.”

 

But even the current Supreme Court has issued rulings underscoring that corporations do not have the same constitutional rights as people. In January 2011, it ruled that they do not have the right of personal privacy  to evade the federal Freedom of Information Act requests — which AT&T had argued was an invasion of personal privacy.

In other words, beyond the rhetoric that all speech should be embraced in a democracy – even if it is by business entities that are licensed by states, that do not vote, that do not have rights to bear arms, and have no privacy rights under FOIA – this debate will continue. 

“We need a constitutional amendment debate,” Bonifaz said. “I think it’s quite vibrant that there are various versions.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers corporate constitutional rights for AlterNet and is author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).