Challenging The Corporate Theft Of Human Rights

"There can be no effective control of corporations whiletheir political activity remains."
President Theodore Roosevelt, August 31, 1910

Stage magicians well know the importance of directing their audience’s attention to a meaningless diversion while, with the other hand or in another area, the real work is performed that creates the illusion of magic. Similarly, the reporting of campaign finance reform has consistently overlooked two of the real issues driving our electoral crisis, while instead focusing on small issues like soft money or contribution limits.

The two big issues that the multinational corporations who own well over 90 percent of all news outlets consistently don’t report are:

1. When Congress, bowing to massive media industry pressure and lobbying (and campaign contributions), agreed with President Reagan to privatize and auction off the airwaves and pass the Telecommunications Act, it led to the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, which had required media outlets to provide free airtime for political debate. As a result, today the only way a politician can run for national office is to pay millions of dollars to media corporations.

2. Corporations have asserted their right to decide whose political viewpoints are aired and promoted, and whose are ignored and suppressed, and which politicians and legislation they will support with campaign contributions and lobbying, by claiming that the free speech protections of the Bill of Rights — put in place to protect humans — apply just as fully to them as they do to human beings.

These two realities flow from an 1886 U.S. Supreme Court case, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, in which the court reporter inexplicably noted in his commentary that "corporations are persons." Although the Court itself had not ruled that corporations are persons — in fact, it had explicitly avoided even discussing the issue in its majority opinion — the Court’s reporter, a former railroad president named J.C. Bancroft Davis, wrote that they had in his commentary on the case. Oddly, subsequent courts read Davis’s headnotes instead of the decision itself, and thus was corporate personhood created.

A corporation can change its citizenship in a day, can own other corporations, can cut off parts of itself and grow new corporations, can live forever, and doesn’t need fresh air to breathe, fresh water to drink, or pure food to eat. Yet corporations claim they need the protections the Founders of America fought and often died to leave humans in the Bill of Rights.

And, ironically, while corporations claim that humans voluntarily give up their rights to free speech and privacy when they enter onto corporate property to go to work, those same corporations claim that their own rights to free speech and privacy are in full operation at all times. Before the Supreme Court, citing the Santa Clara case, corporations have successfully argued that their First Amendment right to free speech means they can legally lie to people or omit important information from their communications, that their Fifth Amendment rights mean they can’t be prosecuted twice for the same crime even if new evidence comes up, that their Fourth Amendment privacy rights mean that the EPA and OSHA cannot perform surprise inspections of their plants, and that their Fourteenth Amendment right against discrimination means that local communities can’t pass so-called "bad boy laws" to keep out companies that have committed crimes in the past or who engage in practices the community considers toxic or offensive.

But the biggest impact of corporate personhood has been on what was once a free press in the United States. Considering the airwaves and the media a part of the commons, a sacred trust held by "we, the people," the government had passed laws regulating how many radio or TV stations a person or a corporation could own. When Reagan auctioned off the airwaves to raise money to pay for Star Wars, the commons became private property and "we, the people" lost much of our right to regulate who owned what or how they used it.

In 1946, media observer Ben Bagdikian documents, 80 percent of all American newspapers were owned by individuals and independent local companies. Today it’s the opposite. "80 percent [are] owned by corporate chains," and only three corporations control "most of the business of the country’s 11,000 magazines."

In 1984, Bagdikian notes, 50 corporations dominated the nation’s "daily newspapers, magazines, radio, television, books, and movies." Following the deregulation and merger craze in the 1980s, that number dropped to 20 by 1993. Today it’s just 10.

The result is that today you can drive from one end of the nation to the other and still hear the same (pro-corporate/right-wing) talk show hosts. And political debate is almost entirely paid for, with those candidates who don’t buy lots of airtime also being largely ignored by the news operations run by the same corporations selling the advertising.

As a consequence, campaigns have become overwhelmingly expensive. The average U.S. Senate campaign now costs over $6 million, whether the candidate wins or loses. That’s $6 million to raise in 6 years: a million dollars a year, $20,000 dollars a week. Can you imagine starting every day in your office knowing, as corporate lobbyists begin to file in to visit you and promote their causes, that by the end of the day you have to raise another $4000 or you won’t have your job after the next election?

And the price is rising. During the 1998 House and Senate elections, over $1 billion was paid to media corporations for ads by parties, politicians, and interest groups seeking to get their word out to the public. That’s double what was spent in 1992, and seven times the amount paid to media corporations by candidates and political parties in the 1978 elections — before the frequency auction and the end of the equal-time rule. In just the first 4 months of his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush raised and spent more money than Bill Clinton and Bob Dole combined had raised and spent in the entire election cycle 4 years earlier.

Although corporations are, as Chief Justice Marshall noted nearly 200 years ago, "mere creature[s] of law," they have in the past half-century claimed more and more human rights for themselves. Media corporations use their claim of corporate personhood to fight back regulations against monopoly or requirements for free political speech airtime, while claiming that their own employees have given up their constitutional rights by coming to work.

In August 2002, the Green Party of Arizona announced a campaign to amend that state’s constitution to limit personhood rights to human beings and return corporations to the control of the law and government that authorized their creation. This followed ten local communities in Pennsylvania passing ordinances openly denying corporations the right to own or operate factory farms, and similar ordinances in a half-dozen other states. Back in April of 2000 the City of Point Arena, California, passed a resolution explicitly "rejecting the concept of corporate personhood."

An international movement is taking shape to challenge the corporate theft of human rights. If successful, it will mean that "we, the people" will once again have the opportunity to have a government "of the people, by the people, for the people." If not, we may slide into a new era of feudalism, with corporations replacing the feudal lords of old and working people cast in the role of vassals.

This article is copyright 2002 by Thom Hartmann, and in part excerpted from Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights by Thom Hartmann, published by Rodale Books, 2002. More information is available at