There is not a single U.S. Government policy issue that makes my blood boil more than "corporate citizenship." In case you are not familiar with the concept, corporate citizenship is a legal doctrine, under which corporations are perceived to have many of the same Constitutional rights as flesh-and-blood American citizens.
The somewhat obscure issue came to the attention of many Americans, last year, when, in a case known as CITIZENS UNITED vs FEC, the Supreme Court ruled that Corporations have the same right to free speech that all U.S. citizens do, and that neither Federal, State, nor local governments can restrict the amount of money that corporations can spend on political advertising.
The crisis of corporate inﬂuence over American democracy is the latest subject of award-winning "Story of Stuff" ﬁlmmaker, Annie Leonard, who on March 1st released an animated short, The Story of Citizens United v. FEC: Why Democracy Only Works When People Are in Charge. The 8-minute ﬁlm, which you can view below, or at storyofcitizensunited.org, places corporate inﬂuence—not bad politicians—at the heart of Americans’ low conﬁdence in the political process.
Short and Sweet
Because corporate citizenship is a legal construct that has been built over 150+ years, the effects of the corporate personhood doctrine, and how it came to pass require arcane Constitutional knowledge and the quotation of numerous obscure Supreme Court cases. In this new film, Ms. Leonard has brilliantly managed to capture the relevant facts, the essence and seriousness of the problem, and even offers a solution in only 8 minutes. On top of all that, the move is quite entertaining. She uses a dry and witty comedic style and an approachable "soccer mom" persona. The film also includes the "Story of Stuff's" now-familiar stick-figure animation (This combination of elements brought great success to her prior two efforts).
A Constitution Solution
Ms. Leonard's solution to the problem of corporate citizenship is a proposed Constitutional Amendment (link to various alternative Amendments), which clearly spells out that the Constitutional First Amendment right to freedom of speech only applies to human beings. Ben & Jerry's founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, are already throwing their support behind this effort, and they explain their reasons in their own video. The ice cream magnates have also started an organization called Business for Democracy, which is "an initiative of companies and business leaders who believe this ruling is in direct conflict with American democratic principles and a serious threat to good government."
"We the (Real) People"
I wholeheartedly support these efforts. A constitutional amendment that I would support, would state that all Constitutional rights are for flesh-and-blood human citizens and naturals of the U.S., only, and that legal entities, including corporations, inherently, do not posses any right, unless such right is explicitly granted to them in the Constitution.
I am not sure that the movie goes far enough in explaining just how deep the rabbit-hole goes, or what other rights corporations currently posses, besides free speech. But, because of it's charm and simplicity, The Story of Citizens United v. FEC: Why Democracy Only Works When People Are in Charge should be very successful in getting the word about the evils of corporate citizenship. I would like to say a hearty "Bravo!" and "thank you" to all of those, including Ms. Leonard, who had a hand in its creation.
Further Reading: This 2010 editorial contains some of my ideas on how the Citizens United decision might affect sustainable business. It also contains some detailed background on corporate citizenship and its implications. For a slightly humorous take on one absurd, but not impossible, consequence, check out this article on corporations running for office.. Business for Democracy's "Business Statement in Support of Government by the People".
Steve Puma is Director of Business Development for SABA Motors, and a sustainability writer/consultant. His work focuses (mostly) on clean transportation, including Plug-In Electric Vehicles, something he is very passionate about.
Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School and a BA in Computer Science from Rutgers University. You can learn more about Steve by reading his blog, or following his tweets.
<em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">Steve Puma</a> is a sustainable business consultant and writer.
Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from <a href="http://www.presidioedu.org/">Presidio Graduate School</a> and a BA in Computer Science from <a href="http://www.cs.rutgers.edu/">Rutgers University</a>. You can learn more about Steve by reading his <a href="http://www.brightpuma.com">blog</a>, or following his<a href="http://twitter.com/stevepuma"> tweets</a>.</em>