Corporations are Not People

“Rarely have so few imposed such damage on so many.” So begins Bill Moyers’ Foreword to attorney Jeffrey D. Clements’
galvanizing book, Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It, a fascinating and disturbing account of the backstory of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission. Clements frames Citizens United as the most far reaching in a long line of Court decisions that have promoted the rights of corporations over those of real people.  For those of us who care about the future of the corporation and who seek to create corporate forms that support the transition to a more just and regenerative economy, Clements’ book reminds us that we must first ensure that our democracy is not stolen out from under us by present-day corporations disguised as people.

Citizens United ruled that corporations as “people” enjoy the First Amendment rights of free speech and that consequently, because of First Amendment protections, the government could not restrict corporations’ expenditures on political campaigns.  Clements sums it up nicely as “a corporate power case masquerading as a free speech case.”  In Corporations Are Not People we also learn about what came before Citizens United— a carefully orchestrated power grab by corporations, which began in the early 1970s in response to fear of the environmental movements’ growing clout. Clements tells the story of the behind-the-scenes machinations of Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer who encouraged his corporate clients to come together in a concerted effort to use an “activist-minded Supreme Court” to effect the social, economic, and political changes that would be advantageous to their interests.  Powell was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1972 by President Nixon, and on the court bench went on to advance the right of  “corporate speech” at the expense of the speech of real people.   Clements chronicles in case after case, the insidious impact of Powell’s pro-corporate activism. Its legacy is evident today not only in cases like Citizens United but in countless others where the people’s right to know about or to be protected from corporate behaviors is pitted against the alleged rights of corporations, either to withhold information or to disseminate it. These include battles to label genetically modified foods and cases where parents have sought to protect their children from targetted cigarette advertising.

Clements seeks not only to inform but to rouse us to action. He calls on us to support The People’s Rights Amendment, which overturns Citizens United and begins with the declaration: “We the people who ordain and establish this Constitution intend the rights protected by this Constitution to be the rights of natural persons.”  Corporations Are Not People concludes with links to organizations taking action to overturn Citizens United including Free Speech for People, which Clements co-founded.—Susan Arterian Chang