May 13, 2005


Corporate free speech
by Jim Hightower

One of the silliest claims made by those who run Corporate America is that the paper entity called "a corporation" must be treated as human beings, entitled to the same constitutional rights that we living, breathing U.S. citizens have — including the human right to freedom of speech.

Of course, a corporation is a thing, not a person, and to see how absurd it is for corporate executives to claim that their entities should have democratic rights, just sneak a peek at how they treat the free-speech rights of shareholders, the actual people who own the corporations. In theory, shareholders are the ultimate boss of any corporation, supreme over the executives who're the hired hands doing day-to-day management. In practice, however, the relationship is turned on its head, with the executives bossing the owners.

The annual shareholder meeting is when owners supposedly get to grill their hirelings and set corporate policy. But these meetings have become a sad farce. For example, at this year's gathering of the shareholders of Weyerhaeuser, the executives imperiously decreed that the owners would no longer be able to go to an open microphone on the floor and ask whatever they wanted. Instead of free speech, questions for the Weyerhaeuser CEO had to be submitted in writing, and only 15 minutes were devoted to answering the owners' questions.

Of the 30 questions submitted, management deigned to respond only to 12 of them. And even then Weyerhaeuser's autocratic executives cut short the 15-minute Q and A period. One rebellious shareholder had the temerity to rise and ask why. He was summarily ejected from the meeting by a burly security guard (a guard hired by management and paid with the shareholders' own money). It was a crude and rude move that New York Times business columnist Gretchen Morgenson termed "Kremlinesque."

Why would we extend free-speech rights to totalitarian entities that deny the most basic rights to their own owners?

Jim Hightower is the best-selling author of Let’s Stop Beating Around the Bush, on sale from Viking Press. For more information, visit www.jimhightower.com.


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