George Will on the People’s Rights Amendment

George Will recently published a good Washington Post column on the ill-conceived People’s Rights Amendment, which Eugene Volokh and I blogged about here and here. Will points out several serious flaws in the proposal, and builds on some of the points we made:

Controversies can be wonderfully clarified when people follow the logic of illogical premises to perverse conclusions….

Joined by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), 26 other Democrats and one Republican, [Rep. James McGovern] proposes a constitutional amendment to radically contract First Amendment protections. His purpose is to vastly expand government’s power — i.e., the power of incumbent legislators — to write laws regulating, rationing or even proscribing speech in elections that determine the composition of the legislature and the rest of the government. McGovern’s proposal vindicates those who say that most campaign-finance “reforms” are incompatible with the First Amendment…

His “People’s Rights Amendment” declares that the Constitution protects only the rights of “natural persons,” not such persons organized in corporations…

McGovern stresses that his amendment decrees that “all corporate entities — for-profit and nonprofit alike” — have no constitutional rights. So Congress — and state legislatures and local governments — could regulate to the point of proscription political speech, or any other speech, by the Sierra Club, the National Rifle Association, NARAL Pro-Choice America or any of the other tens of thousands of nonprofit corporate advocacy groups, including political parties and campaign committees.

Newspapers, magazines, broadcasting entities, online journalism operations — and most religious institutions — are corporate entities. McGovern’s amendment would strip them of all constitutional rights. By doing so, the amendment would empower the government to do much more than proscribe speech. Ilya Somin of George Mason University Law School, writing for the Volokh Conspiracy blog, notes that government, unleashed by McGovern’s amendment, could regulate religious practices at most houses of

worship, conduct whatever searches it wants, reasonable or not, of corporate entities, and seize corporate-owned property for whatever it deems public uses — without paying compensation. Yes, McGovern’s scythe would mow down the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, as well as the First.

One can argue for the constitutionality of campaign finance regulations on several grounds. But doing so on the basis that people organized into corporate entities have no constitutional rights does indeed lead us down the dangerous path dramatically illustrated by the Peoples’ Rights Amendment.