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(Woke) Corporations Are People, My Friend

July 5, 2019
(Woke) Corporations Are People, My Friend

A miraculous resurrection has taken place on the banks of the Potomac. Entities once unpersoned have again been magically imbued with individual rights, rescued from the constitutional memory hole in which they had been cast.

It was just months ago when progressives mocked the idea of “corporate personhood,” a longstanding legal principle that simply says constitutional rights that apply to individuals also apply to groups of individuals (for instance, when they collectivize as a business).

First Amendment free speech protections, for example, apply not only to reporters, but to the news entities—which are usually corporations—for which they work. Or: The government cannot walk into Amazon’s headquarters and illegally search the premises. Or: Congress cannot quarter soldiers at Wendy’s in a time of peace. And so on.

Nevertheless, stickers proclaiming “Corporations Are Not People!” continue to adorn progressive car bumpers (stickers printed by companies who enjoy First Amendment protections for making them, incidentally). Groups like Move to Amend were formed because, in their view, “human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.”

The liberal complaint, of course, is that First Amendment protections should not apply to corporations when applied to political speech, which may have the effect of impacting elections.

These protections were codified in the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which effectively determined that money is indistinguishable from speech and incorporated groups of people have every right to participate in the political process in the same way individuals do. The decision overturned large swaths of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill that criminalized certain types of group political speech outside the times set forth in the law.

Yet the mere mention of Citizens United makes progressives react as they were vampires served an appetizer of garlic bread. In his dissent, reliably liberal Justice John Paul Stevens argued that because corporations have “no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts,” and “no desires,” their “personhood” often serves as a “useful legal fiction.”


Stevens’ characterization of corporations as conscience-free vessels devoid of political morality sounds a little tin-eared in 2019, when America’s largest businesses are climbing on top of one another to achieve woke supremacy. In doing so, they are taking progressive political positions roundly applauded by those on the left, who are evidently thrilled corporations are now exercising their First Amendment rights to push political causes.

The commodification of progressivism, which National Review’s David French has dubbed “performative wokeness,” now saturates every corner of our culture. For instance, during this year’s Super Bowl, Nike ran a minute-and-a-half ad throwing itself at the feet of women’s groups. To drive home its point, the ad suggested that people had called WNBA star Lisa Leslie “crazy” for dunking a basketball (an imaginary insult which does not seem to have been made by any sentient human being on the planet).

During the same telecast, Gillette spent millions to air a now-infamous ad decrying “toxic masculinity.” During recently-ended gay Pride Month, clothing brands such as Adidas, Polo, H&M, J. Crew, and Fossil either introduced LGBTQ pride brands or pledged to donate proceeds to gay-friendly charities.

And it wasn’t just fashion retailers: From United Airlines to Pret A Manger, it was hard to find a major corporation that didn’t conspicuously proclaim their allegiance to Pride Month. Not to be outdone, Citibank put out a press release reminding consumers that they had signed an amicus brief in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case and were still “very disappointed” in the outcome.

Of course, Citibank isn’t the only major brand to try to use its right to free expression and assembly to affect actual legal change. Both Netflix and Disney have suggested they will halt production in Georgia unless the state rescinds it near-total ban on abortion.

The National Basketball Association moved the 2017 All-Star game out of Charlotte as a protest against a North Carolina law that required transgender people to use the restroom that corresponds to the sex on their birth certificate. A sponsored tweet by Dove Men’s skin care currently advocates in favor of paternity leave laws, ensuring new fathers are both engaged and moist.

Naturally, not a pixel was sacrificed on the left criticizing these corporations for spending their money and resources taking political stands.

Instead, the need for constitutional amendments to restrict corporate political speech has become de rigueur in the Democratic Party. Supporting the reasoning behind Citizens United is like going to see Hamilton and failing to post a picture of yourself in front of the marquee—it simply isn’t done.

Take Elizabeth Warren, who argued for corporate speech restrictions in her 2017 bookThis Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class.

Among Warren’s favored ways of preventing corporations from undue influence are “constitutional amendments” and the “reversal of the Citizens United Supreme Court opinion that let money flood into politics.”

If you’re looking to pick up a copy of Warren’s argument for why she should be president, it can be found on Picador Press, a subsidiary of Holtzbrinck Publishing.

Holtzbrinck’s 2017 revenues: $1.6 billion.

Warren remains at large.

Christian Schneider

Christian Schneider is a member of the USA Today board of contributors and author of 1916: The Blog. Twitter: @Schneider_CM.