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When did corporations become people?

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The personhood of a corporation has been under much scrutiny in light of Supreme Court decisions concerning corporate contributions to political campaigns as free speech and exemptions to the affordable care act as religious freedom. Many feel the Supreme Court is creating a culture where corporations are extended constitutional rights just as an individual person is afforded those rights.

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It is not fully known when Supreme Court justices first saw corporations as people. We can track this belief as far back as 1819 in the case of Dartmouth College v. Woodward. The issue whether or not the college was a public or private institution.

Dartmouth had been granted a charter in 1769, which was prior to the Revolutionary War. The King of England spelled out the purpose of the church and a structure to govern it as a private institution of learning. In 1816 the legislature of the state of New Hampshire passed laws that revised the schools charter, changing it from private to public and devised a new way to elect trustees. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the 5-1 majority view that corporations, including Dartmouth College, were made up of people who do not give away their individual rights when they come together in a legal association, in other words a corporation, just because some people feel it does not meet the philosophical definition of personhood. Marshall contended that a corporation is made up of people with individual rights and those rights carry through to the corporation itself.

To put this in simple terms, a news organization such as the New York Times is extended the same freedom of the press rights as its individual reporters because each of the shareholders possesses the right to a free press.

Chief Justice Morrison Waite affirm this viewpoint specifically in 1886 when he said, "The Court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution which forbids a state to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws applies to these corporations. We are all of opinion that it does."

Although these early cases involve corporations that were primarily held by owners residing within the same state the Waite decision clearly indicates the court felt that state laws and constitutions could not infringe upon a corporation to any degree beyond that which was permitted by the Constitution of the United States as it related to individual rights.

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