Corporations declared to be people? Huh?

Dear Cecil:

I’ve heard you can avoid all kinds of laws by creating a corporation. I understand that’s nonsense, of course. But I’m curious: how is this supposed to work? I’ve always found the theories of corporate conspiracy theorists entertaining — for example, the idea that U.S. courts have declared that “corporations are people” and can do anything a real person can. “Corporations are people” seems to be propelled by some similar notion as, say, whacky tax protestor logic, but I’m damned if I can figure out what it is. The websites I’ve consulted offer a convoluted explanation involving the 14th Amendment and the Citizen’s United decision, where nothing is what it seems — it’s like reading Heidegger or Leo Strauss. I know it’s all jabberwocky at bottom, but surely there’s some superficially logical thread.

Lance Strongarm

You’ve oversimplified it. A corporation is a person in the sense that it can own, buy, and sell things, incur debts, and have to pay taxes. It is also a person who isn’t you. Therefore, if the corporation goes bankrupt, creditors can sure the corporations, but your money is safe.

This too is an oversimplification, but it is a good start to answering your question.

Hi Keeve,

Don’t worry, my question was satirical.

In his last article, Cecil took on a loony legal theory. In the process, he posited one of his own - that courts have declared that “corporations are people” and therefore are legally identical to people. That’s almost as loony as the theory he exposed in his article!

And recently, we’ve been informed that corporations have freedom of speech in the same way that individuals do.

Ar you saying that you do not believe this is true, that you do not believe that courts have ruled that corporations are (in certain senses) people?

It is certainly not just a “loony” fantasy of Cecil’s. It is widely believed. If you have good reasons for thinking it is false (aside from the fact that it seems loony), I am sure we would all like to hear them.

Yes, of course they do.

The government may not censor speech, regardless of the source.

Corporations are, by definition, legal persons (NOT real, or “natural” persons). That means they are to be treated like persons in very limited legal situations.

The courts have ruled that, yes, under certain laws, corporations are to be treated the same way as people, in limited circumstances.

No court has ever ruled that corporations are the same thing as people in every way. That’s obviously absurd - which is an indication that it didn’t actually happen.

It is widely believed, but false.

First of all there are many examples of censored speech, even under the broadest interpretations of the first amendment.

Secondly, as alluded to in this thread and others, corporations are not people, they are just treated as people in a small subset of laws. It is not at all entailed that they must have freedom of speech.

Of course, if the officer of a corporation causes the corporation to commit a crime, their actions may make them legally liable criminally and civilly. You can’t deliberately buy things through you corporation, sell them to yourself personally, with the intent to declare bankruptcy, for example. That would be fraud by you and the corporation.

Right - which is why I compared the corporations are people theory to the whacky tax protestor theory.

If you take the corporations are people theory to its logical conclusion - and some people are doing this now - you could form a corporation and avoid all criminal or civil liability for anything by doing it for the corporations. Buy pot through a corporation and the corporation will be criminally liable, but not you! You can’t be sent to jail. The corporation-person did it, not you!

There are people out there who think this is the way things are - that corporations have been declared people in every sense, and will soon be allowed to vote and adopt children. It’s strikingly similar to the loony tax protestor theory in the article. Cecil alludes to the similarity by bringing it up in the article, saying it’s similar. The only problem is that it is not true, just like the tax protestor theory is not true.

So this qualifies as a whacky theory as much as the tax protestor thing does.

Come on, Cecil, do a column on whether corporations have been declared to be people, in every sense! Fight Ignorance!

Sure, but my point was that the SOURCE of the speech cannot be a reason for censorhip. The government may not declare that certain sources of speech are to be censored.

Corporate personhood is irrelevant to that question. Corporations have free speech whether they are persons or not.

Is there a question here, or should I report this thread to be closed?

If I understand Cecil’s column, Cecil is taking umbrage with the recent court ruling that corporate campaign donations cannot be limited because corporations are entitled to free speech like individuals are. He uses the rhetorical device of comparing what a majority of the SC considered sensible with a position that most people would consider unsensible- that “personhood” is a legal fiction, an artifact of our system of law and government. The sovereign citizen movement claims that people can opt out of the system by refusing to be identified with the legal “personhood” established for them by the government. I’m reminded of the Max Headroom TV show, where dropouts and fugitives existed outside society by becoming “blanks”- people who had erased all cybernetic documentation of themselves, in effect becoming nonpersons.

Cecil evidently thinks that it’s hypocritical to hold that a “person” within the system doesn’t have to be a human being, but all human beings are persons, whether they want to be or not. He also evidently thinks that the Fourteenth Amendment has been jury-rigged almost as badly as the Interstate Commerce Clause.

Since this is apparently a comment on one of Cecil’s columns, let’s move this over to the Comments forum.

How can a corporation be legally considered a person?

Despite possibly being more applicable, I think the comment was about this column: Can I avoid paying a tax bill by writing “accepted for value” on it?

I’m serious - I’d like Cecil to research the question and maybe publish a column on it.


The decision said nothing about donations to campaigns. It was about speech.

And he was wrong about both the facts and the law.

A corporation is indeed, in a very limited sense a legal person. However, no court has ever said corporations are people in every sense. That’s obviously absurde - which is why no court has said it.

So both whacky theories involve the idea that people and legal entities are interchangeable.

And he’s wrong, again, on both the facts and the law.

It wasn’t a comment, it was a question for Cecil. He brought it up, now I want him to go out and research it and get back to us.

Fight Ignorance, Cecil.

Didn’t the column linked by **Colibri **in post #14 do exactly that almost 10 years before the current column that just mentioned the concept in passing?

If the OP’s question is “can you bypass the law by creating a corporation which takes away legal responsibility for your personal actions?”, then the answer is no. AFAIK, all the states have laws declaring the requirements for establishing a corporation, and they spell out criminal and civil legal liability quite clearly. Among these are that the officers and executives of a corporation are responsible for the corporation’s actions, as said upthread by md2000. You can’t just claim that a corporate policy somehow emerged from a non-local distributed process; sooner or later some human person or group of persons is held accountable.

That said, there are things which corporations are by law allowed to do that individuals can’t. For example, in the thread about ask the guy with machine guns, it was pointed out that you can form a trust or corporation which is in theory a firearms dealership allowed to own post-1986 automatic weapons, considered “dealer samples”. The trustees don’t “own” the weapons, but practically speaking have custody of them. But this loophole is provided for by law, it’s not illegal.