George Will tells a scary story in a recent column about a constitutional amendment proposed by a Democratic congressman to restrict the document's free-speech rights to "natural" persons, thus excluding business corporations and all "corporate entities" from the First Amendment's grant of immunity in political discourse. Rep. McGovern's "People's Rights Amendment" attempts to render corporate speech subject to regulation while disallowing any construction of its language that would "limit the people's rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free exercise of religion, and such other rights of the people, which rights are inalienable." Will, of course, is a free-speech absolutist when it comes to corporations, and can only attribute attempts to regulate or limit corporate speech to a conspiracy of incumbent politicians who fear that unlimited spending will counterbalance their notorious competitive advantage in re-election campaigns. Taking his bias into account, however, Will seems to have a good argument against the specific language of this amendment. Despite the disclaimer quoted above, the amendment's rejection of corporate speech-rights does seem to put some rights and immunities long taken for granted into question.
As the columnist notes, "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" As many defenders of corporate speech point out, whether they're Republicans or ACLU-style civil libertarians, the right of corporately-owned newspapers, news networks, etc to editorialize on political subjects doesn't appear to concern people as much as corporate entities' ability to buy commercial time for political causes. Advocates of the People's Rights Amendment might fall back on the Mitt Romney defense and argue that newspapers are people -- but what about unsigned editorials? If an editorial -- let's say an election endorsement -- goes unsigned to represent the collective opinion of a publisher and editorial board, would that render it subject to regulation under the People's Rights Amendment? Supporters of the amendment might argue that the disclaimer means that newspapers would not be held accountable for anything they weren't held accountable for before, but to the extent that this particular amendment retroactively invests speech-right in "natural" persons rather than the sort of corporate entity that a newspaper is, isn't the implication that the corporate entity never had the rights or rightly enjoyed protection in the first place?
There remain arguments to be made for regulating the market for political advertising, as opposed to regulating political speech in general, but McGovern and whoever else drafted the People's Rights Amendment haven't necessarily made the best arguments in the optimum language. Ultimately the issue of whether wealth distorts politics can't be dodged and has to be addressed directly, despite the protests of the ACLU that such suspicions stigmatize a class of people. Civil liberties are great things, but they presuppose a standard of civility that itself seems to be in dispute these days. We may need to redefine civility before we can agree again on the civil liberties people by themselves or in groups -- or corporate entities -- may enjoy.