Corporate Free Speech is a Fundamental Human Right

Today, in the greatest victory for Free Speech in a century, the Supreme Court ruled that Corporations (for-profit and non-profit, owned by shareholders as well as controlled by union members) are free to exercise political speech

From the Volokh Conspiracy:

This rhetorical tactic is most often used by liberals and leftists to criticize rights advocated by conservatives and libertarians. However, it’s important to understand that the same ploy can easily be turned on rights favored by the political left. Consider, for instance, the right to use contraceptives upheld by the Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut. Contraceptives, after all, have no rights. They are inanimate physical objects, like any other property. Under the Connecticut law banning their use, women were still free to avoid pregnancy (e.g. — by abstaining from sex, or by using the rhythm method). They just couldn’t use this particular type of property to do it. It’s easy to see that any such critique of Griswold would be specious. After all, contraceptives are just a means that women use to exercise their rights to reproductive choice, albeit a particularly effective one.

The same point applies to corporate speech and property rights. When corporations “speak,” they are just a means that individuals use to exercise their rights of free speech — often a more effective means than the available alternatives. And just as the right protected in Griswold actually was a human right rather than a right belonging to the contraceptives, property rights are rights of human owners, not rights belonging to tracts of land or objects.

And in a wonderful coda, the outrageous persecution of pro-family activists in California was cited as a great example why free speech must be protected. Wonderful!

48 thoughts on “Corporate Free Speech is a Fundamental Human Right”

  1. Point of query: Who is it, in particular, enabled to “use” this “tool” called a corporation, for expressing speech freely?

    An example which may clarify my question: If a union uses union dues to create a political advertisement, are we to assume that all members of that union are freely using the tool (union/union dues) to express their own speech freely? In other words, are we saying that unions, corporations, and so forth are homogeneous, so that we can assume the speech coming from any such body accurately expresses the speech of the members?

  2. Curtis,

    Excellent question!

    Point of query: Who is it, in particular, enabled to “use” this “tool” called a corporation, for expressing speech freely?

    Conceptually, the same as is free to use a yard sign, or a bumper sticker, or a website: the lawful owners.

    An example which may clarify my question: If a union uses union dues to create a political advertisement, are we to assume that all members of that union are freely using the tool (union/union dues) to express their own speech freely? In other words, are we saying that unions, corporations, and so forth are homogeneous, so that we can assume the speech coming from any such body accurately expresses the speech of the members?

    To the same extent we may imagine a yard sign on land that is jointly owned by a family, sure.

    We have a centuries-old system for expressing control of the tool of corporations: a system of elections for boards of directors and selections of executive officers.

  3. TDAXP,
    You have me baffled here. How do you reconcile your anger at the pervasive influence and self-interest of Goldman Sachs in our Treasury with the Supreme Court decision to now let Goldman Sachs (and every other special interest) to freely dominate the electoral process without restriction?

    The First Amendment was designed to serve and protect the rights of the individual – a corporation cannot vote, cannot run for office, cannot die, does not share the common values of an individual, but they are now allowed a voice? The First Amendment was not designed to protect the voice of an entity that exists only for profit. It was designed to protect the voice of the individual against the power of those kinds of entities.

    Consider the overwhelming influence foreign-based corporations will now have in the United States electoral process.

    This is an example of depraved legal logic at its finest. For you to celebrate Scott Brown’s victory as “taking the power back!” and then turn around and celebrate something that dramatically cripples the power of individuals is baffling.

  4. It would seem to me then that Obama and Congress are merely expressing the will of the American people, in all they do, since we have a centuries-old system for expressing control of government….? Is this your meaning?

  5. Great comments!

    Tim,

    Hopefully this is not too baffling for long. :-)

    I am strongly against the depravity of Goldman Sachs, et al. That said, I do not advocate a restriction of speech to further my position. Indeed, like the Court, the solution to speech is more speech, not less. Earlier (I cannot find the post off hand), I directly took this position, when Goldman Sachs sued a blogger who disagreed with the company.

    You are right that a corporation does not have hopes, dreams, or values. Neither does a yard-sign. But to be outraged if the Supreme Court protected Yard Sign speech would be senseless — yard signs are a tool. So are corporations. They are socially complex tools of persons, but tools nonetheless.

    . It was designed to protect the voice of the individual against the power of those kinds of entities.

    This is so fundamentally wrong. The Bill of Rights are designed to protect the individual against the power of government, not against the power of other persons. Traditionally even the Left recognized this, which is why FDR and others felt the need to introduce “new” Bills of Rights to address this perceived excessive focus on prohibiting violence.

    Consider the overwhelming influence foreign-based corporations will now have in the United States electoral process.

    I think the question of speech by foreign persons is an interesting question. But as the Court noted, if that was the concern, this law (which was against corporate speech as such) is over-broad.

    For you to celebrate Scott Brown’s victory as “taking the power back!” and then turn around and celebrate something that dramatically cripples the power of individuals is baffling.

    On twitter, my good friend @groundrocket responded to my celebration of Brown’s victory as follows: “I just don’t think the casual reader is aware of your caveats and id hate to lump you in with certain types.” [1] My concern is the conservative one: preserving our liberty, preserving our constitution, preserving our economic system. I oppose Obama to the extent he threatens those things. He threatens those things through ObamaCare. He threatens those things through his support of censorship. I am consistent in opposing him in both cases.

    Curtis,

    It would seem to me then that Obama and Congress are merely expressing the will of the American people, in all they do, since we have a centuries-old system for expressing control of government….? Is this your meaning?

    I strongly agree with many of Obama’s policies, as I have made clear. Nonetheless, he is the legitimately elected executive officer of the United States of America, constrained by the national charter and other laws, rules, and regulations.

    [1] http://twitter.com/groundrocket/status/8011401853

  6. Obama may be the legitimately elected executive officer of the U.S. of A., as are all elected presidents; nonetheless, I rarely find a common belief that he is actually and/or accurately speaking for all citizens of the U.S. when he speaks.

    So my question returns to the accuracy of that speech which incorporated bodies may produce. Elected board officials and union bosses may have a legitimate position within the incorporated body, but this does not automatically mean they speak accurately for the members of that body. At times, we can see the truth of this, albeit after the fact, when leaders are removed from their positions as head of the corporation or union — but the problem remains, whatever inaccurate speech produced by those removed leaders. leading to their removal, has already been made by the time they are removed.

    It would seem to me that the “free” in “free speech” requires the ability to produce that speech at any time, according to the will of the speaker.

  7. Thanks for the expanded thoughts!

    “The Bill of Rights are designed to protect the individual against the power of government, not against the power of other persons.”

    You’re referring to corporations as “persons”. I’ll do the same.

    If corporations (persons) with no human values, hopes, or dreams are freely allowed to manipulate and control our government through endless massive funding and unrestricted influence that knows no mortal end – what then is the difference between corporations (persons) and government? What then protects the interests of the individual against that kind of government?

  8. Curtis,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Certainly, any tool must be calibrated among several dimensions, including reliability, accuracy, visibility, and so on. A bumper sticker may be visible to hundreds, but given certain constraints, can only express a limited, cartoonish version of one’s view. Likewise, a length manifesto, while perhaps being an accurate reflection of someone’s beliefs, may be given to misinterpretations, and also only read by a small number of individuals.

    Corporations are likewise imperfect tool — they multiply the visibility of the message, but you correctly point out the imperfections corporate government. Presumably most NRA members do not advocate strict gun control, and presumably most Greenpeace members are not wild about offshore oil drilling. Still, it is an imperfect tool, as you note.

    Tim,

    what then is the difference between corporations (persons) and government

    Government can inflict violence to achieve its objectives.

    This issue is so fundamental there can be little honest debate if it is denied.

  9. Corporations can inflict violence to achieve its objectives. Powerful corporations have a long sordid history of violence, exploitation, and depraved acts against humanity in order to achieve its objectives.

    “Corporate Free Speech is a Fundamental Human Right.”

    That is a fundamentally incorrect. Corporations are not humans.

  10. Yard signs and contraceptives are derived from a natural person’s right to free speech and personal choice. They have no standing in law. Corporations are now treated as natural persons who will use massive capital to express themselves. While the capital is like a yard sign, it is not a personal expression of right, unless you are going to maintain that the beliefs and values of every shareholder or union member is expressed in the corporate expression of “free speach”. Your logic is incredibly faulty.

  11. Tim,

    Thank you for your comment.

    I hope your next one is not so pedantic.

    We form governments so that they may organize violence in ways pleasant ot us. They may lawfully impress, kill, and disposses others in order to achieve policy ends, of course subject to certain restrictions. Persons and their agents, however, may not do as such.

    Your last statement is like denying that Freedom of the Press is not a human right, as printing presses are not humans.

  12. I am curious to see how the speech of individuals — real rather than imaginary humans — will now be protected given the Supreme Court’s ruling. For instance, if a minority of the corporate board of directors, or individuals within a corporation or union, speak out against the federally-protected speech produced by the majority, will their positions within the corporation remain protected or will they face reprisals? Imagine what already happens in the body politic (extending the metaphor of U.S. gov. as a corporate body w/ elected leaders) happening within a corporation or union: will counter-manifestos or extensive counter-advertising campaigns be tolerated by the corporate majoritarians and/or corporate leaders?

    I suspect and fear that in some cases the old argument will rear its head: that, as representatives of a corporation, these dissidents will legally be silenced — i.e., the person of the corporation (the imaginary human) will have a right to protect its own unified message, or free speech, by squelching dissidence coming from within.

  13. What an ugly satire of freedom Curtis presents!

    Imagining living in such an awful country, where “freedom of speech” meant that you subsidized speech you hated, where “freedom of religion” meant that churches could not have any governing structure, where “freedom of the press” meant that newspapers had to present any point of view that showed itself.

    Thank God we don’t live in such a Hell!

    Rather, we live in a country where like-minded persons may form societies, corporations, and associations so express their concerns, hopes and fears. And with this ruling, they may actually do so regarding political concerns, hopes, and feels, as well!

    If I didn’t fear he was serious, Curtis’s pretension that freedom of speech meant that you could compel others to listen to you — and not that you were free of the threat of governmental use of force against you — would be hilarious. As it is, it strikes me as closer to the ugly tyrannies we killed Redcoats to expel.

  14. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the purpose of government described so horrifically!

    “We form governments so that they may organize violence in ways pleasant to us. They may lawfully impress, kill, and dispose others in order to achieve their policy ends, of course to certain restrictions. Persons and their agents, however, may not do as such.”

    Unless of course, persons and their agents (corporations) are freely allowed to manipulate government with all their power and profits.

    If corporations (persons and their agents) with no human values, hopes, or dreams are freely allowed to manipulate and control our government through endless massive funding and unrestricted influence that knows no mortal end – what then is the difference between corporations (persons) and government? What then protects the interests of the individual against that kind of government?

  15. Tim,

    I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the purpose of government described so horrifically!

    Happy to be the one to introduce the social contract [1,2] to you. ;-)

    Unless of course, persons and their agents (corporations) are freely allowed to manipulate government with all their power and profits.

    No. This is a fine point. But an important one.

    In a federal republic, so as we exist in, I may elect Representatives and Senators to attempt to influence the manner in which the State uses violences to achieve political objectives. I vote for the voters, in other words. But I am unable to do so myself, either individual or in association with others.

    We kill those who try. [3]

    Your last paragraph, unlike the rest of your fine comment, adds nothing, and so I do not address it.

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leviathan
    [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leviathan_(book)
    [3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Civil_War

  16. I see, you are indeed in favor of corporations (imaginary humans) squelching the free speech of its dissident members (real humans.)

    I should have seen this earlier, when I read the title of your post. The right of corporations to their own free speech must come with their right to squelch dissidence, or a corruption of that speech coming from within.

  17. Curtis,

    If you can find a place where I advocated allowing corporations to use force to silence dissent, please state so.

    Otherwise, withdraw your comment.

  18. I might be tempted to withdraw or revise my previous comment, if you can explain, with something approaching rationality, the following:

    Imagining living in such an awful country, where “freedom of speech” meant that you subsidized speech you hated, where “freedom of religion” meant that churches could not have any governing structure, where “freedom of the press” meant that newspapers had to present any point of view that showed itself.

    It was my impression that you are supporting the right of a corporation to present a unified message, similarly to the way churches w/ a governing structure or newspapers with an editorial staff may limit what comes out of the church or newspaper.

  19. “In a federal republic, so as we exist in, I may elect Representatives and Senators to attempt to influence the manner in which the State uses violences to achieve political objectives. I vote for the voters, in other words. But I am unable to do so myself, either individual or in association with others.”

    You’re assuming corporate objectives will not be used to manipulate and influence an elected official away from your own values. Or, you’re assuming the values of a corporation will always be parallel to your own.

    Corporations do not have human values such as hopes and dreams. You said so yourself to me:

    “You are right that a corporation does not have hopes, dreams, or values.”

    But then later said to Curtis:

    “Rather, we live in a country where like-minded persons may form societies, corporations, and associations so express their concerns, hopes and fears.”

    I don’t follow. A corporation has no values. But a corporation can express values? Is this like a robot that’s programmed to say, “I love you” yet has no understanding or capacity for “love”? Why would that robot receive the same rights as I, a human being, enjoy?

  20. Tim,

    It’s hard to follow your comment.

    For instance, this passage:

    Is this like a robot that’s programmed to say, “I love you” yet has no understanding or capacity for “love”? Why would that robot receive the same rights as I, a human being, enjoy?

    Replace “robot” with “blog” or “newspaper,” and the answer is obvious.

  21. Dan,

    I am still a little confused. This statement confuses me:

    where “freedom of speech” meant that you subsidized speech you hated,

    I take from that the idea that we shouldn’t be forced to subsidize speech we ourselves hate?

    If that is so, then how do you reconcile that position with the very real possibility that, say, my union dues may be used by union bosses to create a political ad with which I disagree? Or that my investment in a corporation may be used by that corporation for a political ad supporting a candidate I personally hate?

  22. It’s hard to compare the interests of a personal blog and, say, an international corporation.

    But regardless, newspapers, robots, and corporations have no “pursuit of happiness.” They pursue profit only. They can’t express human needs – and often the pursuit of profits trample over human values, desire, and need.

    If that’s the case – why be outraged about Goldman Sachs? Why is Wall Street’s power and influence in Washington bad? They are simply using the Federal Government to express and reward their values.

  23. Curtis,

    I take from that the idea that we shouldn’t be forced to subsidize speech we ourselves hate?

    If that is so, then how do you reconcile that position with the very real possibility that, say, my union dues may be used by union bosses to create a political ad with which I disagree? Or that my investment in a corporation may be used by that corporation for a political ad supporting a candidate I personally hate?

    You may leave the union, or sell your shares.

    Tim,

    I am not upset for Goldman Sachs for pursuing its interests as such.

    I am upset with Goldman Sachs for pursuing the wrong interests.

    Similarly, I do not object that al Qaeda exists as an organization for Muslims.

    I object that it exists as a terrorist organization.

    (As both were behind high-profile raids against the US in New York that straddle the line between crime and war, I think the analogy is a just one.)

  24. How is profit and pervasive power within the Federal Government a “wrong” interest for Goldman Sachs? I’d say it’s benefited them quite nicely.

    The Supreme Court’s decision now fully enables the perversion of our electoral process by mammoth special interests such as Goldman Sachs.

  25. It is difficult to have such a conversation, since this type of conversation can devolve rather quickly.

    There is however this, from the comment section linked in the post above, which strikes me as interesting:

    “Actually, by definition, corporations are a separate legal person. To think of a corporation as an association of individuals is to simply away the corporation.” [commenter "Joe"]

    It is in response to Ilya Somin’s statement, in the linked Volokh article, that “When corporations ‘speak,’ they are just a means that individuals use to exercise their rights of free speech.”

  26. At risk of revealing that I didn’t bother to read every comment, above, I think a better approach to the GS vs free speech conversation would be to ask: What responsibilities and accountabilities do corporations inherit with their freedom of speech?

  27. Michael,

    The same as blogs, or newspapers, or yard signs. The question is so well settled there is little to discuss. ;-)

    Curtis,

    A corporation is not simply an association — it is an association with attributes, including a governing structure, the ability to select legally responsible agents, and so on.

    Tim,

    Goldman Sach’s goals are no more or less wrong than, say, al Qaeda, or a pedophiles’.

  28. Michael,

    Corporations don’t exist for their own sake either. They are created by shareholders (who can dissolve them). Additionally, every corporation has a charter that lays out the functions the corporation is intended to perform and the goals it is intended to achieve.

    To narrow down the question: What responsibilities does Goldman-Sachs gain with the right to free speech and is it living up to those responsibilities?

    The same “responsibilities” you gain by being able to post a blog comment…

    That is, such is an incorrect way at looking at where rights come from.

    Rights are innate. Powers are contracted to the government, which imposes limitations on us. We don’t have responsibilities because of our rights. We have responsibilities as part of a contract that guarantees our rights.

  29. “Rights are innate. Powers are contracted to the government, which imposes limitations on us. We don’t have responsibilities because of our rights. We have responsibilities as part of a contract that guarantees our rights.”

    Granted. So what responsibilities does G-S and other companies have as a part of their rights-guaranteeing contract?

  30. That’s a good question Mike – maybe tdaxp can tell us.

    Goldman Sachs (and every other corporation) only have one primary goal – profit. It’s also their primary responsibility – to return profit to shareholders. Therefore their “speech” will only be used to benefit a pathological pursuit of profit, regardless of how that may conflict, damage, corrupt, or destroy the individual, the electoral process, or government.

    That’s why the behavior of a corporation, although a collection of individuals, does not and can not reflect the behavior or desires of individuals. It’s why there needs to be a distinction and a protection in place.

    Giving powerful non-human entities, who only pursue profit and never die, the rights of individuals is a prime example of legal depravity.

  31. Michael,

    Generally, the Congress has the powers to create laws that are laid out in Article I Section VIII of the U.S. Constitution, except for thsoe which are prohibited elsewhere in the Constitution. So, for instance, the Congress may levy taxes, or regulate interstate commerce, but not restrict political speech, nor pass ex post facto laws.

    Tim appears to be commenting from an alternative dimension where the NRA and the ACLU are “pathological” corporations focused only on profit. I wish him luck in his quest. His universe also appears to not have the benefit of logic, as he appears to advocate stripping those who have preferences of which he disproves of their political rights (for instance, profit-seeking individuals would seem to have no rights under Tim’s argument). Likewise, Tim appears to be perfectly fine with all forms of media censorship, as long as it is the ‘non-human entity’ (the printing press, the air wave, the television camera, etc) which is restricted from performing an action.

    When I read comments like his, I thank God my ancestors took up arms and killed the representatives of the King who wished to impose such a tyranny in this land!

  32. Tim,

    What’s your point. The subject of your post was not addressed by the comedian. Further, as you’re doubtless aware, the comedian’s routine is a combination of trivial statements and humorous observations delivered with timing. He doesn’t present any substantive argument one way or another, and of course doesn’t try to, either.

  33. We’ve prohibited corporations from spending money in the electoral process since the days of Teddy Roosevelt with the Tillman Act of 1907. Most recently was the Court’s decision in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission in 2003.

    The new composition of the Court ignored 100 years of precedent and gave us a highly partisan 5-4 decision, overturning their previous judgments and historical concern.

    That’s the very definition of judicial activism.

  34. Tim,

    “That’s the very definition of judicial activism.”

    I have never heard this before.

    I don’t see how failing to follow stare decisis fundamentalism (which I know of no one who has ever advocated) is “judicial activism.” In fact, the only way I could see someone supporting such a definition is that it is so broad, it allows one to opportunistically call all opponents ‘judicial activists’!

  35. I really shouldn’t get sucked into conversations like this, then space out for several weeks . . .

    There was a point to the questions I was asking which a Burkean like yourself should be able to appreciate. The laws which govern our behavior are rooted in a time when corporate entities didn’t exist. The exact interpretation of our rights as laid out in the Constitution, how we’re tried in a court of law, what kind of punishments we’re subjected to if found guilty: How many of these things are written with a human in mind?

    If we hear a human say something, we know he said it. If a partnership or sole proprietorship says something, we have a fair idea who’s idea is being expressed. If my local newspaper publishes an editorial, I can look up the editorial board’s composition. But if a corporation exercises its right to free speech, who’s ideas are being expressed? The CEO’s? The Chairman of the Board’s? The Board’s as determined by a vote? A 3rd Assistant Executive Vice-President in charge of Corporate Communications’? Do we treat it the same as a yours or my speech, as a sole proprietorship’s speech, a editorial board’s speech or something else entirely? Who takes legal responsibility for that speech in libel cases or “yelling ‘fire’ in a theater” cases?

    The issue of corporate responsibility for criminal behavior has been in the news for years, already. If a corporation as a whole is tried for a crime, would the testimony of employees be treated normally, or would it be considered self-incrimination? If the corporation is found guilty, how do you gauge the severity of any attempt to punish it?

    More paragraphs could be written about drafts, voting, electoral office and other things. Most of these laws, issues expressly voted on by Congress excepted, were written with the assumption of human citizenry. Assume corporate entities have constitutional rights, and you open up all these other questions. Ignore these questions and someone, corporate or human, is going to wind up on the short end of a lot of sticks.

    I’m not a Burkean; if a change is important enough to require rapid changes in society, so be it. If it is big enough to require a fundamental rethink of many of our laws, well, it wouldn’t be the first time. But I do think it’s fair to ask tough questions.

  36. Michael,

    I think I agree with your direction. The Constitution outlines several methods of Constitutional change. One of the worst crimes of the Progressives was to advocate changing the Constitution through activists judges, as they did when they began limiting corporate free speech a century ago. We now have generations of people who cannot remember a time when if they didn’t like the Constitution, the appropriate method was to sponsor an amendment, rather than get their own activist judge on the court!

  37. tdaxp,
    An irrelevant jab at progressives without addressing any of Michael’s concerns? Come on now.

    Michael,
    I share your concerns – corporations will claim all the beneficial rights of an “individual”, but will reject that label whenever a punitive repercussion emerges. When they find themselves under legal or political fire, they’ll return to the defense that they are simply invulnerable and amorphous entities where no one person can possibly be held responsible for the collective actions of many. We’ve already had a nice example of what that looks like of course: http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE60C1Y520100113

    It’s no different than the corporate practice of privatizing profits and giving lip service to the “free-market system” telling individuals that we too can enjoy the benefits of capitalism. And then socializing their losses and failures – telling the taxpayers, the individuals, that it’s for our own good, and that different rules “must” apply to them.

    All gain and no pain.

  38. Tim,

    Michael raised a serious, high-level point about the need for the set of laws that govern us to change with conditions. I agreed with his point — hardly ignoring, I think!

    That said, your assertion that corporate personhood leads to “All pain and no gain” is refuted by 300 years of experience. Indeed, its two assertions are trivially untrue. It is closer to trolling than a contribution to a serious discussion.

  39. Michael asked “serious, high-level” questions too. All of which you seemed to avoid.

    I assert my observation that corporations will abuse their new found rights as individuals because that manipulative behavior is so visible. What else do you call our current corporate welfare program?

  40. tdaxp,
    The link below is a good example of corporations claiming no responsibility for the failures of their products (financial products they create, market, and sell) or their actions:
    http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE60C1Y520100113

    Below are the questions/concerns Michael raised:

    1. If my local newspaper publishes an editorial, I can look up the editorial board’s composition. But if a corporation exercises its right to free speech, who’s ideas are being expressed? The CEO’s? The Chairman of the Board’s? The Board’s as determined by a vote? A 3rd Assistant Executive Vice-President in charge of Corporate Communications’?

    2. Do we treat it the same as a yours or my speech, as a sole proprietorship’s speech, a editorial board’s speech or something else entirely?

    3. Who takes legal responsibility for that speech in libel cases or “yelling ‘fire’ in a theater” cases?

    4. If a corporation as a whole is tried for a crime, would the testimony of employees be treated normally, or would it be considered self-incrimination?

    5. If the corporation is found guilty, how do you gauge the severity of any attempt to punish it?

  41. Tim,

    1. I think you present a good argument that there is no reason a newspaper must disclose its editorial board’s composition. In the same way, we do not force people to publish blogs under their own names, either.

    2. Not sure I understand the question?

    3. Limited liability is the reason the legal technology of the corporation was invented.

    4. This is settled law, regardless of the specific decision in this case.

    5. Ditto.

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