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Groups React to Supreme Court Decision on Campaign Finance

A key issue: Whether personhood applies to corporations.

Focus on the Family Action, Family Research Council, and Concerned Women for America praised yesterday's Supreme Court decision allowing corporations to spend money on political advertising. Sojourners, meanwhile, condemned it.

"The censorship we now confront is vast in its reach," Justice Anthony Kennedy said in the majority opinion. "When government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves."

In his dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens warned that "the court's ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation."

"The distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant," Stevens said, especially when talking about elections. "Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. … Corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their ‘personhood' often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of ‘We the People' by whom and for whom our Constitution was established."

"This is sophistry," Kennedy responded in the majority opinion. "The authorized spokesman of a corporation is a human being, who speaks on behalf of the human beings who have formed that association—just as the spokesman of an unincorporated association speaks on behalf of its members. The power to publish thoughts, no less than the power to speak thoughts, belongs only to human beings, but the dissent sees no problem with a corporation's enjoying the freedom of the press."

Christian political organizations, some of which have recently been arguing against extending definitions of personhood to include some marine life, side with Kennedy in seeing corporations as people with speech rights.

"This is a win for free political speech and the right of corporate citizens to join the political process," said Family Research Council president Tony Perkins. "Had the court not acted as it did today, the United States would have continued down the road of ever increasing restrictions and impediments to the expression of political speech."

Concerned Women for America CEO Penny Young Nance agreed. "The government should not be limiting political speech because someone is rich or poor, or because they disagree with a particular point of view.

Indeed, as Focus on the Family Action spokesman Tim Goeglein indicated, groups like his speak frequently as institutional voices that may be stronger than any single personality. "Organizations like Focus on the Family Action, the family policy councils, all of our allies— this [Supreme Court decision] will give us an incredible voice in the great issues of our time."

Actually, said Sojourners founder Jim Wallis, the ruling "will give a huge boost to the special interests that already exercise a stranglehold on our political system, allowing them to tighten their grip and further prevent any meaningful change. … At a time when financial reform is at the forefront of people's concerns, giving big banks and corporations a green light to even further influence our political process is an outrage and an assault to democracy."

At First Things, Hadley Arkes is one of the few to discuss the corporate personhood issue:

It is curious that the dissenters do not appreciate this axiomatic point: that a corporation is simply another form of an association of "human persons." The question was raised in the first case eliciting a set of opinions from the Court (Chisholm v. Georgia, 1793) … On what ground could a state be obliged to honor its promises and contracts? On the same ground that a person can be obliged to honor his promise, for he has made people vulnerable to the prospect that the promise will be kept. But if that holds true for the ordinary human person, why would it not hold true for an organization that is simply an association of human persons? It made the most profound difference that one understood "the State," in America, as an association of free persons, who have a claim to be ruled only with their consent.

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