I'm about 25 pages into the 190+ page (including dissents) Citizens United v. FEC opinion on corporate speech. Thus far, the Court has been mainly concerned with explaining why the case morphed from a narrow challenge to a particular section of election law into a facial challenge to the broad prohibition on corporate and union independent expenditures. I'll leave that for the con law and election law types.
Of more interest for our purposes is the majority's reaffirmation of corporate first amendment rights:
The Court has recognized that First Amendment protection extends to corporations. ... This protection has been extended by explicit holdings to the context of political speech. ... Under the rationale of these precedents, political speech does not lose First Amendment protection “simply because its source is a corporation.” The Court has thus rejected the argument that political speech of corporations or other associations should be treated differently under the First Amendment simply because such associations are not “natural persons.”
The idea that a corporation is a legal person with constitutional rights is, of course, a controversial one. Some commentators argue that it's bad policy. In my view, however, it is a well-settled principle of US constitutional law and justifiably so.
On the one hand, the courts have never empowered corporations with "privileges of citizenship." The second clause of the 14th Amendment - the so-called Privileges and Immunities - states that: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States." But it is settled that the Privileges and Immunities Clause does not protect corporations, because corporations are not deemed citizens for purposes of the 14th Amendment. Western and Southern Life Ins. Co. v. State Bd. of Equalization of California, 451 U.S. 648, 656 (1981). Conversely, however, "It is well established that a corporation is a 'person' within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment." Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v. Ward, 470 U.S. 869, 881 (1985).
The common law had long recognized the legal personality of corporate bodies. See Book I, Chapter 18 of Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769). But what of the Constitution?
The key case for constitutional law purposes is Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, 118 U.S. 394 (1886). Curiously, if one carefully reads Justice Harlan's decision in that case, one will find neither a clear statement nor a citation of authority concerning whether corporations are "persons." That point, instead, is made in the syllabus by the Reporter, who related that at oral argument the Chief Justice had stated that:
The court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a State to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are all of the opinion that it does.
Despite it's somewhat odd parentage, the principle is sound.
The legislative history of the Fourteenth Amendment suggests that Congress substituted the word ''person'' for the word ''citizen'' precisely so that the provisions so affected would protect not just natural persons but also legal persons, such as corporations, from oppressive legislation. We see this view further confirmed Roscoe Conkling's recounting of the relevant legislative history in Conkling's arguments in San Mateo County v. Southern Pac. R.R., 116 U.S. 138 (1885). Conkling had been a member of the Joint Congressional Committee that drafted the 14th amendment and in Southern Pacific argued to the Justices that it had been the intent of Congress for the word "person" to include "legal" persons (corporations) as well as "natural" persons within the protective scope of the due process and equal protection clauses of the amendment. The Court accepted Conkling's argument.
As Larry Ribstein argues, this development made policy sense:
... corporations are people – the owners and others the corporation represents in litigation. These people have speech rights, rights not to be discriminated against, and so forth. I’ve written on this ...:
The Constitutional Conception of the Corporation, 4 Supreme Court Economic Review 95 (1995); Corporate Political Speech, 49 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 109 (1992) and in my book with Henry Butler, The Constitution and the Corporation (1995) ....
So the African-American owners of this SBA-certified minority-owned contractor shouldn't lose their civil rights because they chose to do business in the corporate form. They might be required to sue as a corporation, as in this case, because that’s a convenient way to handle litigation, but that doesn’t determine their individual rights.
But courts also should recognize that, by the same principle, people shouldn't lose their speech rights just because they exercise these rights though the corporation in which they have invested.
A point that seems to have been vindicated in Citizens United.