Since the topic is in the news again, I thought I’d briefly repost — in a slightly modified form — this item that I blogged several years ago.
A reader asked me to elaborate on my comment about corporations having rights; here are some general observations of mine on the subject. Note that the following speaks only of corporate constitutional rights — naturally, corporations have many rights protected by common-law and statute as well — and in particular of the rights in the Bill of Rights and the body of the Constitution. (The rights do not include the right to vote, which is not expressly in the Bill of Rights or in the Constitution.)
1. Consequences. The New York Times is owned by a corporation. Most private universities are organized as corporations. So are most nonprofit advocacy groups. So are many religious groups (though I believe some are organized through some special quasi-corporate forms). If you really believe that corporations lack constitutional rights, then the government would be free to ban corporate-run newspapers from criticizing the government, or ban the Catholic Church or the ACLU or the NRA from expressing its views.
Likewise, if corporations lack constitutional rights, the government could take their property without just compensation, and in fact without any hearing. It could just come in and grab it, no questions asked.
Now some people might think this is the right result. Or perhaps if this happened, people would stop using the corporate form — newspapers, advocacy groups, and churches would somehow reorganize themselves as, say, partnerships or sole proprietorships. This might actually be hard, and from the perspective of people who disapprove of corporate rights, it might be counterproductive; what’s the point of letting the Times have constitutional rights if it’s run as a partnership but not if it’s run as a corporation? But for now, my point is simply that we should clearly identify the consequences of denying constitutional rights to corporations — and those consequences hardly seem sensible.
2. Individual rights. One reason these results may seem senseless is that restricting the rights of corporations usually means restricting the rights of individuals. If you take the property of a corporation without compensation, whom are you really hurting? Not “the corporation,” which is, indeed, a convenient legal fiction. You’re hurting the corporation’s owners.
If you accept the legal fiction of the corporation being a separate person, then taking its property violates its rights. But if you reject that fiction, as a means of arguing that the corporation should lack rights, then taking its property violates its owners’ rights. Either way, the Takings Clause should apply; and that’s what suggests that the legal fiction (a corporation is a person) is a sensible one here — using it makes analysis easier, but doesn’t ultimately change the results much.
The same goes for the Due Process Clause, the Civil Jury Trial Clause, and so on. If you take a corporation’s property, or let it be taken through certain procedures, you’re affecting the property of individual owners. There’s therefore no real reason to deny these rights to the corporation.
Likewise for free speech. Corporations don’t actually speak; people speak. A corporation’s employee (a person) communications information that is decided on by a group of managers (people) who represent the stockholders (other people). Barring the New York Times or the ACLU or the Catholic Church or General Motors from speaking bars real people from speaking using the corporation’s property.
Aha, some might say, the real people aren’t silenced — they can still speak using their own property. But the Court has long understood that to speak effectively in a vast nation, you need to be able to pool your resources with others (even in this cyberspace age).
The Court has recognized this under the rubric of the right to expressive association, but the same applies to speech via corporations. When people contribute money to the ACLU, so that the ACLU’s directors can decide what ACLU’s spokespeople say, the contributors are making a decision to pool their resources so that some decisionmakers (the directors) can decide how to use them to speak. And the same goes for GM shareholders — they are pooling their resources and giving them to some decisionmakers (GM managers) so they can decide how to spend the resources, including spending them for speech, whether advertising or political advocacy.