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Corporations deserve rights too [The reply]

December 13, 2011 |  2:43 pm

City Hall
My recent column on the Los Angeles City Council's support for a constitutional amendment to abolish corporate "personhood" evoked some strong reactions, some of them rather unexpected, at least to me. Normally, the railing against my work tends to come from conservatives who accuse me of soft-headed liberalism;  my sympathy for those in the country illegally, for instance, is a predictable source of ire. This time, my critique of the council's work drew most fire from my left.

I won't bother with the person -- since the message was unsigned, I don't know whether it was from a man or woman -- who accused me of being a Nazi. Rather, I thought I'd address the more cogent criticism posted by George Merkert, who wrote that the council's support for the amendment was an attempt to right a wrong, specifically the wrong committed by the U.S. Supreme Court initially more than a century ago when it began recognizing corporate constitutional rights, and most recently in the so-called Citizens United case, when it found that among the constitutional rights of corporations is that of speech in the form of political contributions. "Governing our country isn't like a football game where once the buzzer sounds the game is over and nothing can change the outcome regardless of how many bad calls the referees made," Merkert wrote. "Because we have let a ruling by corrupt Supreme Court justice, Stephen Field, stand since 1886 doesn't mean that we shouldn't fix that miscarriage of justice now."

Those are points well taken, as was Merkert's conclusion: "Living with an injustice, as you advocate, makes no sense."

To be clear, though, I wasn’t suggesting that the country is better off consciously living with an injustice,  but rather that first, the proposed amendment is a blunt reply to a nuanced problem; and, second, that the L.A. City Council is not the best messenger for this cause. The first is because there are sound reasons for corporations to have some rights we normally associate with individuals -- the right to own property, to enter contracts, to sue and be sued, to be protected from unequal treatment by the law. Those guarantees enhance human liberty and prosperity -- they supply rational order to the economy -- and simply stripping them from corporations doesn't do much to help anyone. Would we really be a freer people if corporations were prevented from entering into contracts? As I noted in the column, the right of corporations to speak is more dicey, especially when speech means the right to spend money on politics. There, though, I wasn't suggesting that corporations should have unfettered speech rights -- even individuals don't have that -- but rather was noting that untangling speech and money is harder than it sounds. Is this exchange, for instance, an exercise in the individual speech rights of Merkert and myself, or that of Tribune Corp., which in effect is sponsoring it?

Finally, my point on the council is not that it's malevolent or even necessarily wrong about this issue, but rather just that it's hard to take seriously when the same council members who rely on corporations for contributions and cut deals with corporations for city projects then proclaim the inherent evil of those same entities.

Some readers called that courage. That's not what it looks like to me.


Billboards and parks don't mix

Here's what's wrong with the 1%

The City Council's casual hypocrisy

Judging lawmakers by their vocabularies

--Jim Newton

Photo: L.A. City Hall. Credit: Richard Hartog / Los Angeles Times

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