"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
-- The First Amendment
The First Amendment undergirds the nation's utopian quest for "A more perfect Union." A beacon of light since 1787, it is the supreme testament to the nation's commitment to individual liberty, but that has changed over the past several years.
It began in earnest in 2010, with the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. This 5-4 decision ruled that corporations and labor unions could spend as much as they wanted to convince people to vote for or against a candidate. The majority held that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.
There was also the 2014 ruling Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. The Court ruled, in another 5-4 decision, that closely held for-profit corporations were exempt from a law its owners deemed violated their religious beliefs. This time the majority held such corporations were protected under the free-exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment.
If you're wondering if a pattern is being established, you're correct -- a rather sinister pattern to be sure.
Harvard business law professor John C. Coates IV recently authored a new study: "Corporate Speech and the First Amendment: History, Data, and Implications".
In the study Coates writes ominously, "Corporations have begun to displace individuals as the direct beneficiaries of the First Amendment." Moreover, based on the rulings in Citizens United and Hobby Lobby, Coates views this phenomenon as a trend that is accelerating.
It potentially places the First Amendment between the unfathomable choice of class privilege and democracy, moving from individual freedom to organizational entitlements.
In our contemporary discourse it is so easy to become lost in the thicket of a specific issue before the Supreme Court, while offering little consideration for the larger ramifications.
Those who applauded the Citizens Untied and Hobby Lobby decisions fail to see how these rulings have negative consequences on the republic.
Comforted by the desired outcome in the short-term, they are unwitting accomplices in the systematic erosion of the Constitution's most sacred amendment.
Federal court dockets today are pregnant with free-speech challenges from nontraditional sources such as pharmaceutical firms, tobacco companies, miners, meat producers and airlines.
To borrow from the rhetorical playbook of the strict constructionist, is
this what the framers of the Constitution intended? How does corporate personhood move the nation forward?
Rulings such as Citizens United and Hobby Lobby have opened a door that has remained bolted since the inception of the Constitution that could potentially alter U.S. jurisprudence.
Expanding rights to individuals who have been previously denied do not limit the liberties of others. However, the expansion of corporate rights does take away from the individual.
The belief that corporate rights are somehow on par with the individual will always increase the rights of the former by diminishing those of the latter. Is this not the antithesis of Jeffersonian democracy that was suspect toward such elitism?
The Bill of Rights was inserted into the Constitution at the request of Thomas Jefferson, inspired by political philosophers such as John Locke and John-Jean Rousseau who emphasized individual liberty.
The idea of expanding the parameters in which a corporation acts with the same rights as a person allows the corporation to hide behind its legal designation to enjoy the fruits of individual liberty in a manner that is beyond the comprehension of the framers of the Constitution.
The First Amendment serves as the cornerstone of the American experiment. It was never designed to be an instrument that bludgeons individual liberty. Should we acquiesce in silent consent, accepting that this is the natural evolution of American democracy?
We can take the democratic shortcut by applauding the individual cases that meet with our personal approval. But the overarching question remains: Is the current trajectory of corporations gaining First Amendment rights equal to the individual, which transmutes into more rights, in the nation's long-term interest?