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The concept of corporate personhood, initially intended to protect the rights of African Americans through the 14th Amendment, has inadvertently been exploited by corporations to amass unprecedented power, granting them undue influence and privileges far beyond the scope of their original purpose.
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Are Corporations people?

The Corporation

The documentary examines the modern-day corporation, considering its legal status as a class of person and evaluating its behavior towards society and the world at large as a psychiatrist might evaluate an ordinary person.

American Corporations today enjoy many of the same rights as American citizens. Both, for instance, are entitled to the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. Hardly oppressed like women and minorities, business corporations, too, have fought since the nation’s earliest days to gain equal rights under the Constitution―and today have nearly all the same rights as ordinary people.

How the 14th Amendment Made Corporations Into ‘People’

Under U.S. law, some essential rights of the 14th amendment belong not only to American citizens, but also corporations—thanks to a few key Supreme Court cases and a controversial legal concept known as corporate personhood.

When Did Companies Become People? Excavating The Legal Evolution

Are corporations people? The U.S. Supreme Court says they are, at least for some purposes. 


  • 2014Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores ​

    A landmark decision allowing closely held for-profit corporations to be exempt from a law its owners religiously object to if there is a less restrictive means of furthering the law’s interest. It is the first time that the court has recognized a for-profit corporation’s claim of religious belief. The decision is an interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and does not address whether such corporations are protected by the free-exercise of religion clause of the 1st Amendment.
  • 2010Citizens United v. Federal Elections Comm.

    Supreme Court overturned most provisions of McCain-Feingold legislation that restricted corporate money in federal elections and reversed a hundred-year precedent of Congressional authority to regulate federal elections. Most explicit justification of “corporate personhood” by the Court.
  • 2003Nike v. Kasky​

    The Supreme Court heard arguments on whether purposeful untruths in advertising are protected political speech before sending the case back to a California court where it was settled in Kasky’s favor, finding that the state laws requiring truth in advertising had been violated. The question of whether the 1st Amendment gives a corporation the right to speak lies remains unsettled.

20th Century

  • 1996International Dairy Foods Association v. Amestoy​

    The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturns a Vermont law requiring the labeling of all products containing bovine growth hormone. The right not to speak inheres in political and commercial speech alike and extends to statements of fact as well as statements of opinion.

  • 1990Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce

    Supreme Court upholds limitations on corporate spending in candidate elections. ​First Amendment​ rights can be infringed if the state has a compelling interest.

  • 1986Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. Public Utilities Commission​

    Supreme Court decided that PG&E was not required to allow a consumer advocacy group to use the extra space in their billing envelope, upholding the corporation's right not to speak and protecting the corporation's “freedom of mind.”

  • 1978Marshall v. Barlow's Inc.​

    This case gave corporations the ​ 4th Amendment right to require OSHA to produce a warrant to check for safety violations.

  • 1977First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti​

    The ​ First Amendment​ is used to overturn state restrictions on corporate spending on political referenda. The Court reverses its longstanding policy of denying such rights to non-media business corporations. This precedent is used, with Buckley v. Valeo, to thwart attempts to remove corporate money from politics.

  • VA. Pharmacy Board v. VA. Consumer Council​

    The Supreme Court protects commercial speech. Advertising is now free speech.

  • United States v. Martin Linen Supply Co.​

    A corporation successfully uses the ​ 5th Amendment​ to protect itself against double jeopardy to avoid retrial in an anti-trust case.

  • 1976Buckley v. Valeo​

    The Supreme Court rules that political money is equivalent to speech. This ruling expanded the First Amendment​'s protections to include financial contributions to candidates or parties.

  • 1970Ross v. Bernhard​

    Corporations get ​7th Amendment​ right to jury trial in a civil case. The Court implies that the corporation has this right because a shareholder in a derivative suit would have that right.

  • 1967See v. City of Seattle​

    Supreme Court grants corporations ​4th Amendment​ protection from random inspection by fire department. The Court framed the question in terms of “business enterprises,” corporate or otherwise. An administrative warrant is necessary to enter and inspect commercial premises.

  • 1947Taft-Hartley Act​

    Corporations are granted “free speech” in the union certification process, usurping the worker's right to “freedom of association” and greatly weakening the ​ Labor Relations Act of 1935​.

  • 1936Grosjean v. American Press Co.​

    A newspaper corporation has a 1st Amendment liberty right to freedom of speech that would be applied to the states through the 14th Amendment​. The Court ruled that the corporation was free to sell advertising in newspapers without being taxed. This is the first 1st Amendment protection for corporations.

  • 1933Louis K. Liggett Co. v. Lee​

    The people of Florida passed a law that levied higher taxes on chain stores. The Supreme Court overturned the law citing the due process and equal protection clause of the​ 14th Amendment and the Interstate Commerce clause.

  • 1922Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon​

    Corporations get ​ 5th Amendment​ “takings clause”: “. . .nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” A regulation is deemed a takings.

  • 1919Dodge v. Ford Motor Co.​

    Michigan Supreme Court says, “A business corporation is organized and carried on primarily for the profit of the stockholders. The powers of the directors are to be employed for that end.” “Stockholder primacy” is established. This is still the leading case on corporate purpose.

  • 1908Armour Packing Co. v. U.S.​

    Corporations get ​ 6th Amendment​ right to jury trial in a criminal case. A corporate defendant was considered an “accused” for 6th Amendment purposes.

  • 1906Hale v. Henkel​

    Corporations get ​4th Amendment​ “search and seizure” protection. Justice Harlan disagreed on this point: “. . . the power of the government, by its representatives, to look into the books, records and papers of a corporation of its own creation, to ascertain whether that corporation has obeyed or is defying the law, will be greatly curtailed, if not destroyed.”

  • 1905Lochner v. New York​

    “Lochner” became shorthand for using the​ Constitution​ to invalidate government regulation of the corporation. It embodies the doctrine of “substantive due process.” From 1905 until the mid 1930s the Court invalidated approximately 200 economic regulations, usually under the due process clause of the ​ 14th Amendment​.

19th Century

  • 1893Noble v. Union River Logging R. Co.​

    For the first time corporations have claim to the Bill of Rights​. The ​ 5th Amendment​ says: “. . . nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

  • 1890Sherman Anti-Trust Act​

    Sections 7 & 8 of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act defined corporations as persons.

  • 1889Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad Co. v. Beckwith​

    Supreme Court rules a corporation is a “person” for both due process and equal protection.

  • 1886Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad​

    “The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the ​ 14th Amendment​ to the ​ Constitution​, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.” This statement by the Supreme Court before the hearing began gave corporations inclusion in the word “person” in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and claim to equal protection under law. (The case was decided on other grounds.)

  • 1882The Railroad Tax Cases

    In one of these cases, ​ San Mateo County v. Southern Pacific Railroad​, it was argued that corporations were persons and that the committee drafting the ​ 14th Amendment​ had intended the word person to mean corporations as well as natural persons. Senator Roscoe Conkling waved an unknown document in the air and then read from it in an attempt to prove that the intent of the Joint Committee was for corporate personhood. The court did not rule on corporate personhood, but this is the case in which they heard the argument.

  • 1887Munn v. Illinois​

    Supreme Court ruled that the ​ 14th Amendment cannot be used to protect corporations from state law. They did not actually rule on personhood.

  • 1873Slaughterhouse Cases​

    The Supreme Court said: “. . . the main purpose of the last three Amendments (​13​, ​ 14​, ​ 15​) was the freedom of the African race, the security and perpetuation of that freedom and their protection from the oppression of the white men who had formerly held them in slavery.” Corporations were not included in these protections.

  • 1868Paul v. State of Virginia​

    Corporate lawyers argued that under the privileges and immunities clause, corporations are citizens. Supreme Court ruled that corporations are not citizens under ​ Article IV​, Section 2​. “The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of citizens in the several States.”

  • 1819Dartmouth College v. Woodward​

    A corporate charter ​ is ruled to be a contract​ and can't be altered by government. The word “corporation” does not appear in the ​ Constitution and this ruling gave the corporation a standing in the Constitution. It also made it difficult for the government to control corporations, so states began to write controls into the charters they granted. The Supreme Court had “found” the corporation in the Constitution.

  • 1803Marbury v. Madison​

    This case established the concept of judicial review. The Supreme Court ruled that they were Supreme and Congress did not contest it. This gave them the power to make law.

18th Century

  • 1791Bill Of Rights​

    The first 10 Amendments to the ​ U.S. Constitution​ were adopted to protect We the People from excesses of government. At this time, We the People meant only white males who owned property and were over 21 years old. The states decided how much property must be owned to qualify to vote or run for office. (New Jersey women who met property and residency requirements could vote when the Constitution was ratified, but the state revoked that right in 1807.)

  • 1789U.S. Constitution​

    The writers of the Constitution were very interested in protecting their property. Without using the words “slave” or “slavery,” they made slavery legal and institutionalized it. “No person held in Service or Labour in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.” (​Art.4​, ​ Sec.2​).

  • 1776Revolutionary War Begins