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Corporations should be good citizens, but they should keep quiet

February 26, 2010 |  9:55 am

Linda Greenhouse, the former Supreme Court correspondent for the New York Times, has an interesting column linking the Tea Party movement and populism in general to public disapproval of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That's the ruling in which the court said that corporations have the right to endorse political candidates.

Greenhouse writes: "I’ve been traveling a good deal during the past month, and everywhere I’ve gone, people have expressed shock that the Supreme Court could have deemed corporations to be 'persons,' entitled along with the rest of us to the First Amendment right to free speech. Yet the concept of corporate personhood for certain constitutional purposes is not an invention of the Roberts court; it dates to the 19th century. And the Supreme Court has been giving increasingly robust protection to the rights of corporate and other commercial speakers for decades. Seen in this light, Citizens United . . . was not so much a sharp break with the past as the culmination of long-running trends.

"No matter. The decision, its visibility enhanced by President Obama’s public rebuke of the court during the State of the Union speech last month, is obviously serving as a wake-up call, prompting many people to pay attention for the first time to those very trends. Clearly, they don’t like what they see."

I agree, but there is a contradiction I haven't seen anyone remark on. The "corporations aren't persons" argument is in tension with the view (held by some of the same people, I'll wager) that corporations should be "good citizens," by paying a living wage and getting behind worthy public initiatives, from the Boy Scouts to education reform to any of a zillion good deeds companies feel obliged to support in their home communities. Even those avatars of corporate greed, banks, set up philanthropic foundations.

Question for the populists: Can you call on corporations to be "good citizens" and then say they shouldn't exercise a prerogative of citizenship: commenting on issues and candidates?

--Michael McGough


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