Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a strong statement on whether a corporation is a "person" entitled to the same protections as individuals under the Bill of Rights. In dismissing the appeal of Kasky vs. Nike, the court allowed an individual to proceed with a lawsuit against Nike for making false statements in public to generate profits.
Under California law, anyone can sue a company engaged in false advertising and unfair business practices. In 1998, Marc Kasky, a concerned consumer, exercised his right under this state law and filed a lawsuit in California Superior Court against Nike. He alleged that Nike, in order to increase sales, violated the law by making false statements about the working conditions in factories that make its products.
Rather than refute Kasky's charges that Nike workers labor in sweatshops, Nike argued that it has the same free-speech rights as individuals and that its advertising is protected political speech.
The case made its way to the California Supreme Court last year. Without deciding whether Nike's statements were false, the court rejected, 4-3, Nike's argument that its statements were protected speech. California Justice Joyce Kennard wrote, "When a corporation, to maintain and increase its sales and profits, makes public statements defending labor practices and working conditions at factories where its products are made, those public statements are commercial speech that may be regulated to prevent consumer deception." Nike then appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court heard the case on the grounds of whether a public debate over Nike's labor conditions and relations constitutes speech on a public matter entitled to full First Amendment protection. But this case raises a much larger issue to people around the world concerned about the growing power and influence of corporations -- whether a corporation is a human being for purposes of First Amendment and other constitutional protections.
A corporation is an artificial being -- invisible, intangible and existing only in contemplation of law. Being human must be a valid condition for protection under the First Amendment. In effect, the court ruled that there is no constitutional basis for bestowing Bill of Rights protections upon corporations. In this case, Nike's executives would be free to say what they like as individuals with full constitutional protection. Different standards must apply, however, when they are carrying out the business of the company, acting as a tool for exercising the power of a multibillion-dollar corporation.
Some say that Nike's side of the story in this debate about alleged sweatshop abuses is equally entitled to First Amendment protection as statements made by Nike's critics. But this ignores the fact that multinational corporations and workers who make their products are on a vastly unequal playing field. This is clearly the case in today's global economy, where multinationals are at the top of the economic power structures, and they generate profits from workers who toil daily in their sweatshops.
Everyone who cares about democracy and the growing global influence of corporations over governments and peoples should see this Supreme Court dismissal as the beginning of a new campaign to show corporations for what they really are -- nonliving, nonbreathing legal fiction created by the state that should not enjoy the same free-speech rights as human beings. Corporations feel no pain, as sweatshop workers do.
Victor Narro is co-executive director of Sweatshop Watch. Kimi Lee is executive director of the Garment Worker Center.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle