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Corporate rights as stand-in for human rights

Important human interests are at stake in protecting corporate rights.

(Photo: Dieter Spannknebel/Getty)

The rights of corporations are back in the news this week, as the U.S. Supreme Court decided that a California law restricting the sale of violent video games to minors constituted an infringement of the constitutional right to free speech.

Far from being shocking, the notion that corporations should be protected by certain rights ought to be utterly commonplace. Here’s why.

Do you believe that human individuals should have a right against unreasonable search and seizure?

Do you believe that human individuals should have strong rights to free speech?

If so, then you must, logically, be in favour of according such rights to corporations. Why? Not because corporations are legally persons, and not because corporations are “like” human individuals in any particular way. We don’t necessarily need to appeal to any checklist of characteristics that a thing must have in order to be accorded rights.

The reason you must logically be in favour of granting such rights to corporations is that granting them to corporations is—in at least some cases—an essential part of protecting such rights for individual humans.

Consider the right against unreasonable search and seizure. Such a right (for individuals) is a central tenet of all civilized societies. It is crucial for our wellbeing that the government not be allowed simply to show up, search our homes, and take our stuff. What about a corporation’s “stuff”? It must be protected as well. Why? Not because corporations feel fear or have interests of their own to protect. No, corporations’ property must be protected because the interests of real, flesh-and-blood people depend on the protection of such property.

Roughly the same argument goes with regard to free speech. It is literally impossible to shut up a corporation without thereby shutting up human persons. If a human being has the right to speak freely, then she also has the right to speak freely about her commercial interests, including about the products and services and viewpoints of the entities (corporations, partnerships, unions, etc.) that advance those interests.

None of this suggests that the rights accorded to corporations must be exactly the same in kind and in character as those accorded to humans. Rights for corporations are largely instrumental, and need only be accorded where doing so protects important human interests. Nor must such rights be unlimited: there are limits on free speech for humans, and those limits generally should also apply to non-human persons such as corporations and unions and clubs and churches. What is essential, here, is to see that corporate rights are not the bogeyman. Just like human rights, they are a tool for helping us get along, and thrive, as a community.