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Are Businesses People? The Long History Of Corporate Civil Rights

The cover of "We the Corporations" by Adam Winkler.
W. W. Norton
The cover of "We the Corporations" by Adam Winkler.
Are Businesses People? The Long History Of Corporate Civil Rights
Are Businesses People? The Long History of Corporate Civil Rights GUEST: Adam Winkler, author, "We the Corporations"

>> The ideas that companies have some of the same civil rights as people made headlines after the controversial citizens United decision in 2010. The court ruled that corporations have free speech rights and should be allowed to donate to political groups without limits. The rights of corporations have a long tradition in American law and the history and what that means for America is told in the new book, we the corporations. How American businesses one their civil rights. Maureen Cavanaugh spoke with the author, Adam Winkler. >> Let's start with citizens United because that was the first instance many Americans became aware that a corporation could have the same rights as people, as a human being. Do you think the Willing on corporate campaign contributions, do you think of that as the culmination of a push for business civil rights? >> Yes in some way we see the case has shone a spotlight on the question of corporate right but for most of American history it wasn't so controversial. We learn about civil rights, states rights and civil rights but we don't want about corporate rights. Citizens United is really the most recent manifestation of a much longer process by which corporations have been fighting to win cases, extending to them the same rights as individuals under the Constitution . >>> He opened the book with legal arguments. Who was Conkling and how did he try to expand the right of companies? >> Roscoe Conkling represent the southern Pacific Railroad. The 14th amendment was adopted to protect the rights of the newly freed slaves but he said a business corporation should be included in a and unusual credibility. He was nominated and confirmed to sit on the Supreme Court but when he was a young Congressman he helped draft the 14th amendment and it turns out that we later no and historians know that he lied to the Supreme Court about drafting history. >> As far as we know, the writers of the 14th amendment never meant it to apply to court rations, is that right? >> It is applied to corporations and over the last 50 years that the Supreme Court heard only 28 cases on the rights of African-Americans, the intended beneficiaries and 312 cases of the right of business corporations. >> These to be a divide between property rights and liberty writes that what is the difference and when did that change? >> Back 100 years ago the Supreme Court to a boundary on the rights of corporations, they said corporations need property rights People want to invest in corporations if the government can take the property and build a highway without paying just compensation or find a company millions of dollars without having to prove it. So the court said corporations must have basic rights but they don't have the right of personal liberty like things associated with personal conscience or political freedom. Hundreds of years ago courts turned away corporations seeking to spend money on elections. >> How did that change? >> Corporations push for a larger share over the course of the 20th century for Constitutional rights and a turning point was In the 1970s were 30 years before citizens United the Supreme Court led intellectually by Lewis Powell, a justice to before he had gone to the Supreme Court written -- had written a memorandum on how important it was to fight back against the West and consumer advocates and Ralph Nadir then he rules for broad political speech rights , giving them some of the same fundamental rights as you and me. >> You write that corporate personhood has's traditionally and surprisingly you been used to justify limits on the rights of corporations, how has that worked? >> We often think after citizens United that the problem is that the court has said corporations are people but if you look to the opinions you don't find a lot of mention of corporate personhood and what you often find is that the courts have said that corporations have rights not because they are people but because there are people within the corporation and those people have rights and we need to protect the rights of the corporation in order to protect those rights. >> From your study of the subject with you think the corporate rights movement is heading? >> We're seeing corporations winning ever expensive rights under the Constitution. There's an important case where Baker out of Colorado, refused to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple but the case is really about the rights of the business corporation, masterpiece cake shop and the legal mandate is not imposed on the Baker personally but on the company. If the Supreme Court says this company can disregard civil rights laws it could have a broad impact especially on gay rights speaking with Adam Winkler the author of we the corporations, how American businesses one their civil rights. Professor Winkler thank you so much. >> It's been a pleasure.. [

The idea that companies have some of the same civil rights as people made headlines after the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision on Citizen's United. The court ruled corporations had free speech rights and should be allowed to donate to political groups without limits.

But the rights of corporations have a long tradition in American law, according to UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, author of "We the Corporations: How American Businesses Won Their Civil Rights." He wrote that businesses took advantage of constitutional reforms originally meant to protect minorities, including the Fourteenth Amendment's protection of newly freed slaves. From 1868, when the amendment was passed, until 1912, the Supreme Court decided 312 cases dealing with the Fourteenth Amendment rights of corporations, compared to just 28 about the rights of African Americans.

Winkler argues businesses also used their resources to make inroads at the Supreme Court that minorities were later able to use themselves.


"Corporations were behind the preponderance of early cases that breathed life into the equal protection and due process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment—rights that in subsequent years became the basis for Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing racial segregation in schools; Roe v. Wade, guaranteeing the right to choose abortion; and Obergefell v. Hodges, recognizing the right to same-sex marriage," Winkler wrote. "It is not fanciful to say that on more than one occasion, corporations have been among the unsung heroes of civil rights."

Winkler joins KPBS Midday Edition on Thursday with more on how the types of rights given to businesses shifted in recent decades.