The Supreme Court and Mr. Peanut

A minority of First Graders, but a majority of the Justices of our United States Supreme Court insist that Mr. Peanut is a real person.

In a splintered 5-4 decision, the Court has ruled that private corporations are people in the exercise of the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Although those guarantees were surely meant by our founders to assure the rights of free speech to real live people and not bloodless, inanimate business ventures–not huge multinational corporations–the court has ruled otherwise.

The Court’s latest decision determined that corporations may finance political television ads and they may do so in the days just prior to an election, a practice that had been denied by the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law. The high Court’s reasoning is that campaign dollars and speech are indivisible and to prohibit corporate campaign spending truncates a “person’s” right to expression. Really? A corporation and money have the same right as a person? Holy snap, crackle and pop!

This recent tortured violation of common sense is the latest blow of one first delivered by an earlier Court controlled by judges of the political Far Right. In an 1886 decision–Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad–the Supreme Court granted corporations the legal status of a “person.” That decision from the “Gilded Age” of money and centralized power was the precursor for the free speech finding of today’s Court.

The concept of Exxon and Wal-Mart, Halliburton and Enron as a person, enjoying the full protections of the First Amendment, stuns the senses. The direct equating of money with speech diminishes our respect for the majesty of unfettered spoken and written opinion. In America money is speech? That’s right. Love it or leave it.

Ever since the days of the moneyed colossus William Vanderbilt “The Public be Dammed” and J. P. Morgan “I owe the public nothing” our most powerful corporations have strategized about how to present their institutions as caring and folksy; “a good neighbor” carrying us safely through “the friendly skies” high above “the valley of the jolly Green Giant.” For more than a century companies as diverse as Jell-O to Enron have spent billions of dollars in advertising to convince Americans that we are “in good hands” while our children join the likes of Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam for their early morning sugars and trans-fats masquerading as breakfast.

Corporations have strategically created cuddly, loving mascots such as Exxon’s Tiger, Pillsbury’s Dough Boy, the tire companies’ Michelin Man and Tobacco’s Joe Camel. They even created pretend people such as Ronald McDonald and Betty Crocker–all for the strategic and purposeful effort of eliciting sentimental imagery to convince Americans of their neighborly and benign intentions.

Yes, multinational corporations have created enormous gains in science, income, profit and development for Americans, and much of those gains have been accompanied by the high costs of deprivation, destruction and disease.

But, trust us “you are in good hands” and now, thanks to the Cheney-Bush Supreme Court, your friendly neighborhood corporations will exercise the power of money as speech in electing our candidates. The result will be more, and not fewer, negative political television ads and further blurring and warping of our political choices each election day.

PAT WILLIAMS served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West.




Pat Williams served 18 years as Montana’s Congressman. He now lives in Missoula where he teaches at the University of Montana.