Three companies walk into a bar. This joke kills in law school. That’s when I learned a company was a person under the law.
It’s one of the crazier legal concepts I know, and it was created out of thin air in 1866. After the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished, the 14th Amendment was added – “no state shall . . . . deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person . . . the equal protection of the laws.” Given the time, this was a much needed reminder (and law) that all people are created equally. It’s still a work in progress.
Enter Roscoe Conkling. He was a lawyer and former U.S. Senator from New York. In fact, he helped draft the 14th Amendment. He was representing big railroad companies and helping them negotiate with the states to build railroad networks. That’s a tough spot to be in. One state had the power to derail (pun intended) the whole process. If only there was a way to ensure that a company could be guaranteed due process before being deprived of a contract or being assessed taxes.
Abracadabra. Hocus Pocus. Roscoe got the Supreme Court to find company was a person.
I think it’s a horrible decision. Companies may need or deserve certain rights and protections, but there is a more genuine and intentional way to accomplish that end. Thirty years after this decision, the Supreme Court ruled that separate was equal in the landmark decision, Plessy v. Ferguson.
Flash forward 170 years. Companies continue to accumulate and enjoy the rights of people, but few ever conduct themselves like people – good people. We all learned these principles as children – Do unto others as you expect to be done unto you. Be nice. Honesty is the best policy. Love your neighbor.
This is my view of corporate social responsibility. The topic is broad and it seems like a new acronym is introduced every month. However, at its core, it is a simple as making a company a good person.