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Corporations, Persons, and Human Dignity

The U.S. Supreme Court is once again diving into the waters of corporate personhood. See this story, by Adam Liptak, for the NYT: Supreme Court Takes Cases on Rights of Corporations. The Supreme Court added 14 cases to its docket on Tuesday, including three concerning the rights of corporations in unusual settings…. The story notes […]

The U.S. Supreme Court is once again diving into the waters of corporate personhood.

See this story, by Adam Liptak, for the NYT: Supreme Court Takes Cases on Rights of Corporations.

The Supreme Court added 14 cases to its docket on Tuesday, including three concerning the rights of corporations in unusual settings….

The story notes that two of the cases have to do with the use of the ‘state secrete privilege’ — the legal mechanism that allows the government not to submit evidence that would jeopardize national security. Both are cases to which both a corporation and the federal government are parties, and there is question about whether the state secret privilege can be used in ways that either hurt, or benefit, the corporation.

The other case is about privacy:

The privacy case, Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T Inc., No. 09-1279, will consider whether a provision of the Freedom of Information Act concerning “personal privacy” applies to corporations.

AT&T seeks to block the release of documents it provided to the F.C.C., which conducted an investigation into claims of overcharges by the company in a program to provide equipment and services to schools. The documents were sought under the freedom of information law by a trade association representing some of AT&T’s competitors.

AT&T relied on an exemption to the law for law enforcement records that could “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

Personal privacy?

Yes, you read that right. In a previous ruling:

The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in Philadelphia, ruled for the company, relying in part on a definition of “person” in the law that included corporations.

“Corporations, like human beings, face public embarrassment, harassment and stigma” because of their involvement in law enforcement investigations, Judge Michael A. Chagares wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.

I’ve blogged before about why it is (sometimes) essential to think of corporations as persons, at least for legal purposes. But (as I’ve also argued) personhood is a complex notion, and deciding to think about corporations as persons doesn’t immediately imply attributing to them every characteristic of human persons.

Now, I don’t know precisely what Judge Chagares (quoted above) meant when he refers to the possibility of corporations facing “embarrassment, harassment and stigma.” But what he ought to have meant, I think, is that corporations (created by humans for human purposes) can suffer attacks on their reputation that can have a serious negative impact on the legitimate interests of their human creators. Roughly: if you (let’s say) unfairly impugn the behaviour or intentions of a corporation (or a non-profit for that matter) you wrongly harm the interests of the people who rely on it. What Judge Chagares needn’t have meant is that corporations possess the kind of dignity, or intrinsic worth, that we attribute to human persons, and that is the basis not just of the instrumental rights of legal personhood, but of human rights.

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