After an Election Day that saw a number of wins for progressive causes nationwide, activists opposed to “corporate personhood” — the notion that corporations have equal rights to individuals — are pushing ahead with a campaign to add a 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would reject the idea that corporations are people and reverse the 2010 landmark case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-to-4 vote, the Court ruled corporations have First Amendment rights and that the government cannot impose restrictions on their political speech, clearing the way for corporations and other special interest groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections. We speak to John Bonifaz, a constitutional attorney and co-founder and director of Free Speech for People.
John Bonifaz, constitutional attorney and co-founder and director of Free Speech for People.
Amy Goodman: John Bonifaz, you’ve been working on these issues for a long time. We just did a piece on Mississippi defeating fetal personhood as a constitutional amendment. You want to defeat corporate personhood. Explain.
John Bonifaz: Well, this whole idea of corporations being treated as people is antithetical to what the Framers intended and what 200 years of our case law has intended. The Supreme Court said last year that corporations are people with free speech rights and can spend unlimited amounts of their money in our elections. And as a result, we now see effectively a corporate takeover of our democracy.
But this doctrine of corporate rights goes back before Citizens United, and Citizens United is the most extreme extension of that idea. Corporations are not people. They’re artificial entities. We charter them. We allow them to exist. And when they abuse their charter, that charter can be taken away. We, as people, live, breathe, have consciences, have dignity. That is an entirely different thing. And that’s what the Constitution is for. That’s what our democracy is for. That’s why we need a 28th Amendment, to make clear that corporations are not people with constitutional rights.
Amy Goodman: What would the 28th Amendment say?
John Bonifaz: It would make clear that we, the people, rule, that the Constitution is for natural persons, and that when it comes to regulating corporate entities of any kind, Congress and the states have the right to do that.
Nermeen Shaikh: What did the Framers intend, though, in granting corporations the same rights as persons?
John Bonifaz: Well, to be clear, the Framers never granted that. James Madison spoke of corporations as a necessary evil, subject to proper limitations and guards. Thomas Jefferson talked about hoping to crush in its birth the aristocracy of monied corporations. The Framers never intended this. This is a fabricated doctrine of recent time that the Supreme Court has enunciated, really dating back to a memorandum in recent jurisprudence, that Lewis Powell, then a private attorney writing for the Chamber of Commerce—
Nermeen Shaikh: How recent? Can you say how recent?
John Bonifaz: In 1971. And he authored this memorandum articulating what corporate America could do to fight back against environmental laws, healthcare laws, civil rights laws, consumer rights laws. And then he became Justice Lewis Powell, became an architect of that doctrine. And for 30 years, we’ve seen this erosion of the First Amendment in our Constitution. And now I think people are ready to stand up and take our democracy back, take our Constitution back. I salute Kristen for what she’s done to stand up to the big banks. All this is about ensuring that we, the people, rule, not we, the corporations.
Amy Goodman: I saw a sign that said, “I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one.” I’m waiting to see the sign, “I’ll believe corporations are people when the state taxes one.”
John Bonifaz: Right. Well, you know, alongside these is the basic point that we actually do have the right to revoke charters of corporations. We have launched a campaign with Appalachian Voices and Rainforest Action Network to revoke the charter of Massey Energy, a criminal enterprise, as Bobby Kennedy, Jr., has referred to it, and—
Amy Goodman: In West Virginia.
John Bonifaz: In West Virginia, which is engaged in—
Amy Goodman: To revoke it—very quickly, we have 15 seconds.
John Bonifaz: To revoke it because it has abused its charter, decade of federal and civil right—federal and state violations of the law. And when a corporation abuses its charter in this way, so flagrantly violates the law, it no longer deserves the privilege of maintaining its charter.
Amy Goodman: We want to thank you, John Bonifaz and Kristen Christian, for joining us.
Not everyone can pay for the news. But if you can, we need your support.
Truthout is widely read among people with lower incomes and among young people who are mired in debt. Our site is read at public libraries, among people without internet access of their own. People print out our articles and send them to family members in prison — we receive letters from behind bars regularly thanking us for our coverage. Our stories are emailed and shared around communities, sparking grassroots mobilization.
We’re committed to keeping all Truthout articles free and available to the public. But in order to do that, we need those who can afford to contribute to our work to do so — especially now, because we have just 3 days left to raise $35,000 in critical funds.
We’ll never require you to give, but we can ask you from the bottom of our hearts: Will you donate what you can, so we can continue providing journalism in the service of justice and truth?