The Potential Impact of the People’s Rights Amendment Goes Far Beyond Restricting Freedom of Speech

Co-blogger Eugene Volokh has an excellent post on how the proposed People’s Rights Amendment threatens freedom of speech. But it’s important to recognize that the proposal goes far beyond denying free speech rights to entities organized as corporations. It would deny them all other constitutional rights as well. Section 1 of the proposed amendment states that the “the rights protected by this Constitution” are limited to “the rights of natural persons.” Notice that this is not limited to free speech rights or even to First Amendment rights generally. Section 2 emphasizes that “People, person, or persons as used in this Constitution does not include corporations, limited liability companies or other corporate entities established by the laws of any state, the United States, or any foreign state.” Notice that this is not limited to for-profit corporations lobbying for their narrow self-interest. It applies to all corporations of any kind, including nonprofits, media corporations, churches, and others.

Thus, the PRA would deny all constitutional rights to all entities organized as corporations. If the Amendment passes, government would be free to search corporate-owned premises at will, restrict freedom of religion at houses of worship owned by corporate entities (which includes most churches), condemn corporate-owned property for private uses and without paying compensation, and so on. This result is consistent with the logic of those who criticize the Citizens United decision on the grounds that corporations don’t have First Amendment rights because they aren’t “real” people. If this reasoning is correct with respect to the First Amendment, it surely applies to other constitutional rights too. But even dedicated supporters of campaign finance regulations might wonder whether those laws are so wonderful that their protection justifies the sweeping restrictions on all other constitutional rights embodied in the People’s Rights Amendment.

Unfortunately, this dangerous result is not precluded by Section 3 of the PRA, which states that “Nothing contained herein shall be construed to limit the people’s rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free exercise of religion, and such other rights of the people.” Section 3 protects the rights of “the people.” The preceding Section 2 stated that “People, person, or persons as used in this Constitution does not include corporations.” Presumably, that rule applies to the use of “people” in Section 3, which there also does “not include corporations.” If, on the other hand, the reference to “people” in Section 3 does apply to corporations, then the entire PRA would have no effect at all, since Section 3 would preserve from limitation any constitutional rights to which corporations were entitled before the PRA.

Another possible way to mitigate the effects of the PRA would be for courts to rule that the rights of corporations are really just the rights of the natural persons who own them. If so, people organized as corporations qualify as “natural” persons too. I think that is the correct interpretation of the status of “corporate” rights under our present Constitution. But adopting this idea as an interpretation of the PRA would completely undermine the whole point of the Amendment, which is precisely to deny constitutional rights to organizations utilizing the corporate form.

UPDATE: Before writing this post, I had not noticed that Eugene had made some of the same points in this April 20 post. I apologize for any excessive duplication.