Officials in the Siberian city of Barnaul recently banned an anti-government protest using toys on the specious justification that “toys, especially imported toys, are not only not citizens of Russia but they are not even people” [HT: Julie Ershadi]:
There hadn’t been many – indeed any – rallies like it before in Russia. Last month saw dozens of toys, from teddy bears to Lego figurines, standing out in the snow of a Siberian city with banners complaining about corruption and electoral malpractice.
At the time, Russian authorities in Barnaul declared the protest “an unsanctioned public event”.
Now a petition to hold another protest featuring 100 Kinder Surprise toys, 100 Lego people, 20 model soldiers, 15 soft toys and 10 toy cars has been rejected because the toys have been deemed not to be “citizens of Russia”.
“As you understand, toys, especially imported toys, are not only not citizens of Russia but they are not even people,” Andrei Lyapunov, a spokesman for Barnaul, told local media.
It’s easy to see the flaw in Lyapunov’s reasoning. Yes, toys are not people. But owners of toys are. The toy protest is an exercise of the owners’ rights to freedom of expression, not the rights of the toys themselves. Banning a toy protest because toys are not people is much like banning the publication of antigovernment articles in a newspaper on the grounds that newspapers are not people.
Unfortunately, such dubious justifications for restricting political speech are not limited to Russia. Right here in the United States, many claim that the government should have a free hand in restricting political speech by corporations because corporations aren’t people. As I explained here, they are making exactly the same mistake as Lyapunov.
UPDATE: Some commenters are confusing the “corporations are not people” argument for allowing government to restrict corporate speech with the very different claim that the state should be allowed to do so because corporations are state-created legal entities. I’m well aware of the latter argument, and have answered it in some detail here. But it is distinct from the one discussed in this post. There are a variety of different arguments for restricting corporate speech only one of which is closely analogous to Lyapunov’s justification for banning the toy protest. However, that one is extremely common – made by people ranging from Supreme Court justices to Occupy Wall Street protestors – and it is important to understand its flaws.