San Rafael, California resident Jonathan Frieman got pulled over in the carpool lane and ticketed in October, but, unlike most of us, Frieman was delighted and is looking forward to his day in court this week: it was all part of his plan to expose what he feels is the ridiculousness of the concept of “corporate personhood.”
Frieman has been into the idea of opposing corporate personhood since before it was “cool”: he’s been at it for more than ten years. For most folks, corporate personhood was not something discussed in much detail until after the unpopular 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United ruling, or perhaps until after Mitt Romney, while campaigning in 2011, cheerfully chirped at critics that he agreed that “corporations are people, my friend.”
As Wendell Potter from Citizens for Media and Democracy wrote in an article titled Corporations are People, My Friend, and So are States, Say GOPers:
While on the campaign trail in Iowa, former corporate executive and Republican governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney shot back at hecklers who were challenging his stance that it would be unfair and unwise to raise taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations to reduce the deficit.
“Corporations are people, my friend,” Romney said. “Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to the people. Where do you think it goes? Whose pockets? People’s pockets! Human beings, my friend.”
Democrats were quick to pounce. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, said of Romney’s remarks: “It is a shocking admission from a candidate — and a party — that shamelessly puts forward policies to help large corporations and the wealthiest Americans at the expense of the middle class, seniors and students.”
There are some legal reasons why corporations are considered to be “people.” Most of those reasons deal with how legal disputes are to be handled (in short, who / what can be sued), but in recent years, the amount of funds a corporate “person” can contribute to influence political campaigns (among other things) has been hotly debated.
A brief synopsis of corporate personhood-related court cases:
In 1907, The Tillman Act banned corporate contributions to national political campaigns. In 1971, The Federal Election Campaign Act sought to set guidelines for campaign financing, then in 1974, the Federal Election Commission was founded to regulate elections, and campaign funding limitations were imposed (the amount of money donated, the types of entities allowed to contribute, the degree of disclosure of contributions and contributors, and the amount of funding the government would or could provide were all legally defined).
In 1976, Buckley v. Valeo enforced campaign contribution donation limits, but also tied expenditure of money used to support one or more candidates during their elections to First Amendment protections. In other words, groups of people claiming that spending money is legally equivalent to exercising free speech rights have been around for decades; it is not a new concept.
In 1978, First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti set precedent that claimed that corporations and other similar entities should be allowed to donate to other political causes that did not necessarily involve supporting a specific candidate, such as ballot initiatives and referendums. Again, this may ring a faint bell if you followed the trail of corporation and other money that flooded in to oppose the Prop 8 same-sex marriage initiatives in California. First National v. Bellotti made it perfectly legal.
In 1990, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce supported the state of Michigan, which was attempting to keep corporations from using their wealth and resources to unfairly influence elections. In 2002, The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (also known as McCain–Feingold), prohibited corporations from buying advertising that specifically named candidates close to elections. In 2003, a similar court case–McConnell v. Federal Election Commission–upheld McCain–Feingold. In 2007, Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc. undercut McCain–Feingold, but (mostly) upheld McConnell.
Here’s where–for some, at least–corporate personhood became a discussion topic around water coolers at work. In 2010, not only did Democrats stay home from the polls and allow Congress to become infested with Tea Partiers and their ilk, SCOTUS also decided, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that the First Amendment protects corporate “people” that might wish to donate freely to any candidates they liked, but also to allows them to flood the airwaves with “independent political broadcasts” during candidate elections (as well as, as already established, non-candidate elections such as Prop 8). Thus did SCOTUS render Austin invalid as it also partially overruled McConnell, making it practically toothless.
In 2011, then-candidate Mitt Romney infamously called corporations people when responding to hecklers in Iowa. Last year SCOTUS also ruled, in Western Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Attorney General of Montana, that Montana’s state law(s) against corporate financing pertaining to elections did not overrule Citizens United. To be clear, neither Buckley (in 1976) nor Citizens United (in 2011) specifically addressed corporate personhood; corporate personhood as a legal construct was already simply assumed.
Our Californian friend Mr. Frieman is clearly a patient man. It is implied that he has been diligently toting a sheaf of corporation papers around with him–at least when driving alone in carpool lanes–for at least a decade, boldly setting out to be a solo-driving carpool lane scofflaw as often as possible, all while hoping that one day a law enforcement officer would eventually notice only one head silhouetted within Frieman’s car…and issue him the traffic ticket that would allow Frieman to show up in court to dispute it. Finally, in October last year, Frieman was pulled over for ridin’ solo in the wrong lane and ticketed. Score! It only took ten years!
As NBC News reports:
He waved his corporation papers at the officer […] saying that “corporations are people” under California law. Frieman doesn’t actually support this notion. For more than 10 years, Frieman says he had been trying to get pulled over to get ticketed and to take his argument to court — to challenge a judge to determine that corporations and people are not the same. Mission accomplished in October, when he was slapped with a fine — a minimum of $481. […]
Frieman, who faces a traffic court on Monday, plans to tell the judge that this isn’t about carpool lanes; it’s about corporate power. “I’m just arresting their power and using it for my service to drive in the carpool lane,” he told NBC Bay Area’s Jean Elle.
University of San Francisco law professor Robert Talbot says Frieman’s argument may not hold up because it steers too far from the intent of carpool lane laws. “A court might say, ‘Well, it says person, and a corporation is a person, so that’ll work for the carpool lane,’” Talbot told NBCBayArea.com. “It’s possible, but I doubt it.”
Frieman explained his rationale further for the San Rafael Patch in May, 2011, long before he finally achieved his goal of being arrested last year:
You know how the carpool lane on 101 has those signs which say, “Carpool is two or more persons per vehicle?” Did that ever make you want to check out what the definition of a person is in the California Vehicle Code? It says “Person includes a natural person or corporation.” That’s wide enough to, ahem, drive a truck through. Not to mention a skinny little carpool lane.
Just imagine what THAT courtroom scene’ll be like: “Your honor, I got this ticket because Officer ‘so-and-so’ believed I was the only ‘person’ riding in my car in the carpool lane during the restricted hours where the sign says two ‘persons’ need to be in a vehicle. Officer ‘so-and-so’ did correctly espy only one human being in my vehicle. From that he mistakenly believes there was only one ‘person.’ But there were indeed at least two ‘persons’ in that automobile at that time. At least.
Why? Cuz the definition of a ‘person’ in the California vehicle code includes both a corporation and a natural person. Section 470. I had incorporation papers just to be safe, but here’s why I was safe without them: there’s no definition of a corporation in the California Constitution. Nothing in the California Corporations code defines a corporation, either. Why? Cuz a corporation is an imaginary entity. Sort of like a childhood playmate. […]
Your honor, according to the vehicle code definition and legal sources, I did have a ‘person’ in my car. But Officer ‘so-and-so’ believes I did NOT have another person in my car. If you rule in his favor, you are saying that corporations are not persons. I hope you do rule in his favor. I hope you do overturn 125 years of settled law. On the other hand, your honor, if you dismiss the ticket and say I am right, that means anyone can go into the carpool lane alone during restricted hours. That is, you are saying that everyone, riding alone in an automobile in the carpool lane during restricted hours, also has on board a corporation, or, under California law, a ‘person’ other than them.
Frieman is not the first to come up with a novel approach to protesting corporate personhood. As Addicting Info reported in July, a Seattle, Washington woman has already married a corporation (the video clips are charming and amusing, as are the special wedding vows):
Ms. Angela Vogel married a Corporate Person in a public ceremony in Seattle Washington. Officiated by United Methodist Pastor Rich Lang, the ceremony was of course a political statement on the dangers of Corporate Personhood. However, due to the Citizens United decision, the marriage was in fact issued a legal marriage license, making Ms. Vogel, Inc. now the first person in the United States to have married a Corporate Person. […] Sadly, for the happy couple, marital bliss was not to be, as it was determined earlier today that the marriage license could not be legal due to the Corporate Person being underage.
There is one serious flaw in Frieman’s clever plan: if the arresting officer fails to show up on the appointed day, Frieman’s carpool lane ticket may simply be dismissed, saving him $481, but robbing him of his long-awaited chance to have his day in court to express his opinion about corporate personhood to a judge.
In the meantime, if you think Citizens United is ridiculous, and think corporate personhood is even more so, you don’t have to risk annoying a traffic cop, exasperating a judge, or marrying a Corporate Person yourself. You can keep up with what groups like Move to Amend are up to, you can tell your Congresscritters that you want them to seriously consider the amendment proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders, and you can support other similar efforts nationwide.