Corporate Constitutional Rights: Why they matter and what you can do about it

by tara on March 21, 2013

Let’s play Jeopardy! ™

Under the “Democracy” category for $1,000, our clue is: “Corporate constitutional rights, progressively granted by the Courts over the last 100+ years, have created this shocking reality.” [Insert Jeopardy theme song here]. What question will match our clue and win us that $1,000? Any of theses questions below, and many more like them, count for a winning response:

  • How did corporations successfully undermine the Safe Drinking Water Act to have fracking exempted from federal regulation despite the fact that people who live in areas with fracking are able to set their tap water on fire? (Democracy Matters podcast 11/27/11)
  • Why are food industry corporations allowed to participate with Congress in establishing school lunch standards resulting in a reduction of standards such that serving french fries 5 days a week meets the requirement for vegetables? (Democracy Matters podcast 11/27/11)
  • How did corporations succeed in overturning a Vermont law and avoiding a requirement to label milk from cows treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH)? (Democracy Matters podcast 11/27/11)
  • How are corporations able to privatize the local water supply in communities that are not in favor of privatization and have no legal recourse to prevent their water from being siphoned off for the production of bottled water? (Democracy Matters podcast 12/5/11)
  • Why do government agency inspectors need a search warrant in order to conduct inspections of the businesses they are regulating? (Democracy Matters podcast 1/2/12)

If this list alarms you as much as it alarms me, then read on for more details or simply jump to the end of the article to learn what you can do today to be part of the solution to reclaim democracy.

The list of constitutional rights granted to corporations has been growing progressively for nearly 200 years, and today these rights impact almost every aspect of our democracy. Look carefully at any issue that concerns you – campaign finance, environmental justice, civil rights, GMOs, food quality, water quality, air quality, sustainability, educational standards, school discipline, gun laws, prison industrial complex, city zoning and (re)development – and you will find that corporations are strategically using their constitutional rights to wield remarkable power in order to benefit their own interests rather than the public good.

The imbalance of corporate power in our democracy reached a new degree of absurdity three years ago with the Citizens United ruling. Citizens United firmly established money as the “speech” of corporations because the court ruled that campaign finance laws would infringe on the First Amendment free speech rights of corporations and therefore they are allowed to spend unlimited money on federal candidate elections.

Citizens United is but one of a long string of such rulings that began as early as 1886 with a judgment by the US Supreme Court in the Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad case. This case is recognized as one of the first where corporations were given a foothold into securing constitutional rights and establishing them as “persons” entitled to rights in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution (rights originally intended for natural persons). Leveraging the premise that established them as “persons,” corporations have been strategically pursing “corporate personhood” ever since.

Democracy Matters podcast is an excellent resource for more in depth coverage of the history of corporate rights. In January 2012, it ran a 5-part “Democracy School” series covering the history of corporate rights and complete frame of the structural problems we face. The series outlines several key ways that corporations exercise the power of their constitutional rights:

  1. Election Spending: Election spending is legally defined as a First Amendment free speech right of corporations.
  2. Drafting Legislation: Corporations draft legislation and influence the legislative process; often on legislation that governs their own industries.
  3. Participating in the Rule-making Process: Once legislation is adopted, an agency (i.e. EPA, FDA) is tasked with implementing and operationalizing the law. Corporations participate in this process and influence the regulations that govern their own industries.
  4. Driving Ballot Initiatives: Corporations drive ballot initiatives that benefit their industry and these initiatives are voted on by citizens and passed into law. Corporations also fight against ballot initiatives that do not serve their interests.
  5. Making Direct Contact with Lawmakers: Lobbying to influence state, local and federal lawmakers and determine policy that is directly related to their own interests.
  6. Taking to the Courts: Corporations take cases to court where they have succeeded in winning judgements to overturn established state, local, and federal laws that were passed by Congress and the people.

Unless we take action to reverse “corporate personhood,” we will soon surpass even the level of absurdity reached by Citizens United. Case in point: a senator in Montana recently proposed a bill that would grant corporations the right to vote. Yes, that’s right. To vote. In elections.



Now that we know how bad it is, what can we do about it? The solution is simple, we need only to amend the US Constitution to establish two things:

1. Only human beings, not corporations, are endowed with rights that are protected by the constitution, and

2. Money is not speech and, therefore, the expenditure of money to influence the electoral process is not a form of constitutionally protected speech and may be regulated.

Does amending the Constitution sound crazy and impossible? The history of the United States includes several such “impossible” movements: the American Revolution, Abolitionists, Suffragists, and Civil Rights. Drawing on the legacy of these movements, the grassroots group, Move to Amend, is building a diverse coalition of individuals and organizations across the nation. From the bottom-up, Move to Amend is actively pursuing a 10-year plan to pass a 28th Amendment to end the imbalance of corporate power in our democracy.

The solution to the crisis of corporate constitutional rights is a far-reaching and long-range movement, but what about right now, today, for you and me here in Sacramento? What can we do?

1. Today: Sign the petition stating that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.

2. Next Week: Come be inspired and informed by David Cobb of Move to Amend. ThinkHouse Collective is pleased to host David for his talk, “Creating Democracy & Challenging Corporate Rule,” on Wed., 3/27 at 4pm. This presentation is part history lesson and part heart-felt call-to-action! David gives a rousing one-hour talk followed by a facilitated discussion. Come get your questions answered, and learn how you can get involved. You can RSVP on Facebook. *

3. Next Month: Attend a meeting of the local affiliate group, Sacramento Move to Amend, on the second Monday of each month. Email for more information.

“We the People” is the opening line of the Constitution of the United States, yet corporate constitutional rights are dominating our democratic process and undermining the power of the people.

Come next Wednesday to ThinkHouse Collective to hear David’s talk and join Move to Amend in the fight to reclaim democracy.

About the Author: Tara Ingram is a ThinkHouse member and Move To Amend activist who blogs about public art as a hobby. You can visit her and local public art at

* This event is part of the California Barnstorming Tour, and David will also be speaking at two other locations next week: Tues., 3/26 at 7pm at Davis Library and Wed., 3/27 at 7:30pm at Valley-Hi North Laguna Library (near Consumnes College).

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