Looking Past Citizens United and the First Amendment: Corporate Perversion of Individual Constitutional Rights

June 5, 2017
Kimmy Boyle

Trump's election and his subsequent cabinet appointees assured the ascendance of corporate America into the highest levels of government. Under this new administration the intermingling of corporate America and our government is clearer than ever. However corporate power and influence over our government has been ascending for well over a century.

In 2010 after the Citizens United case was decided, corporate personhood--the corporate use of human constitutional rights--was propelled into the spotlight. In Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Committee (FEC), the Supreme Court decided that corporations have rights to free speech--just like people--under the First Amendment. Terms like 'big money' or 'dark money' have become commonplace and are used constantly, especially during election years. Since the Citizen's United decision, corporation's use of the First Amendment has been highly scrutinized and criticized.

But what many people do not realize is that corporate personhood extends past the First Amendment and is the perversion of all human rights. Through court cases and legal battles over the last 150 years corporations have slowly gained many of the same rights solely designated for human beings. High profile cases such as Citizens United vs. FEC or more recently Hobby Lobby vs. Burwell have highlighted the corporate perversion of the First Amendment, but corporations have also claimed rights and protection under the 4th, 5th, and 14th Amendments. Only a handful of cases get the wide publicity it takes to spark discussions about the constitutionality of corporations claiming the same rights as humans. As corporations gain more access to our protected individual rights our safety, our livelihoods, and even our own constitutional rights are undermined.

Corporate abuse of the Fifth Amendment has duly gone unnoticed and with frightening consequences. Under the Fifth Amendment individual citizens have protection against the government unjustly taking their property without proper reason or just compensation. Corporations for the last 90 years have used this right as well to sue individual citizens and even the United States government. The 1922 Supreme Court case H.J Mahon vs. Pennsylvania Coal Company was the first case in which corporations claimed protection under the Fifth Amendment. H.J Mahon bought land in Pennsylvania from the Pennsylvania Coal Company and built his house upon it in 1878. At the time of the original purchase the Pennsylvania Coal Company waived their rights to the surface land to Mahon, but retained the rights to mine the coal underneath his house. In 1921 the Kohler Act was passed in order to protect individual's homes and businesses from destructive coal mining techniques. Later that year the Pennsylvania Coal Company tried to mine under Mahon's property, but because of the Kohler Act his property was protected. The Pennsylvania Coal Company argued that the government-- through the Kohler Act--had eliminated their property's worth and demanded that they be justly compensated.

The Supreme Court agreed and ruled in favor of the Pennsylvania Coal Company. With this ruling the court decided that a corporation had the same protections as individuals under the Fifth Amendment, and that the Kohler Act--meant to keep citizen's homes and properties safe from damage caused by coal mining--did in fact count as a taking by the government. H.J Mahon's right to his own property was undermined by a corporation's abuse of human constitutional rights. This case has set the precedent for corporation's continued abuse of the Fifth Amendment--even at the cost of individual property, life, and safety.

The Mahon vs. Pennsylvania case has allowed for corporations to use the Fifth Amendment to avoid government restrictions or regulations put in place to protect the public. A recent example is the ruling in Lost Tree Village Corporation vs. The United States in 2015. In 2002 while developing land it had previously acquired the Lost Tree Village Corporation was denied a permit to fill parts of its property. The Army Corps of Engineers denied the permit because they found that corporation had not taken the least environmentally damaging route, and that the land's development purpose had already been adequately realized. The Lost Tree Village Corporation then sued the United States government claiming that the environmental regulations and permit denial constituted a government taking. With the permit and the following development of the land they argued the plot would have been worth approximately $4.25 million. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Lost Tree Village Corporation and awarded them $4.25 million dollars, even though the estimated value of the land was only $30,000 and they never developed the plot.

These cases show how corporations manipulate human constitutional rights to get out of rules or regulations that they see as threatening to their profits or potential future profits. The corporate perversion of human rights not only undermines individuals' right to protect their property, but also prevents the United States government from enforcing legislation meant to protect the public and public interests. To ensure that our government can most effectively protect its citizens, we must take on this corporate perversion of human rights and state that these rights granted by the Constitution belong and apply only to human beings. Through the Campaign to Legalize Democracy and the We the People Amendment ( HJR 48) we can abolish corporate Constitutional Rights and reaffirm that our government works to protect its citizens, not large corporate interests! Join the Campaign to Legalize Democracy today!

Kimmy Boyle is a Political Organizing Intern with Move to Amend and a recent graduate of the University of California Davis where she earned her degree in International Relations and minored in Political Science.