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10/19/00 nader.C.Thalken

  Volume 101, No. 83   Tuesday, January 30, 2001  

Criminals still at large

By Travis Metcalfe
Daily Texan Staff

With the last of the seven Texas prison escapees back in custody, there is a comfortable illusion of safety in America once again. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of convicted criminals in our society who have never been imprisoned for their crimes and, by their very nature, cannot be confined or reformed.

Like anyone else in this country, the culprits claim the rights extended to all individuals under the Constitution. But unlike you and me, these "people" want to avoid the responsibilities that go along with those rights, and they are doing a pretty good job getting away with it so far. Who are these privileged citizens? Corporations.

For their deadly combination of products, Ford and Firestone were ranked among the 10 worst corporations in 2000 by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman, who compile the list each year for the Multinational Monitor magazine. These two companies' defective products are thought to have resulted in the deaths of at least 90 people in the last few years. It turns out that both corporations may have been aware of the problems up to two years before they issued a recall. What might be the consequences of this scandal?

Certainly, we can expect to see a flurry of civil and class-action law suits filed against these wealthy perpetrators. Undoubtedly, many of these cases will settle out of court, as several have already. But aside from the civil cases, will there be a criminal investigation? Should corporations be subject to the same treatment as an individual?

They think so.

Since 1886, after a landmark Supreme Court ruling in Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad, private corporations have been considered "natural persons" under the law. Although the Constitution never mentions corporations, they are now entitled to all of the rights afforded to individuals, including the right to free speech.

This has had disastrous consequences for our democracy. These fundamental rights have a completely different meaning to a corporation with access to hundreds of billions of dollars than they do to an average citizen. According to Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce, this has led to a situation which is "precisely what the Bill of Rights was intended to prevent: domination of public thought and discourse." Nevertheless, the free speech super-rights of corporations have been upheld consistently, from advertising to political campaign donations.

This is especially troubling when you consider that these corporations also own, or at least exercise considerable influence over the media, which is nominally supposed to provide impartial reporting of incidents like the Firestone/Ford recall.

Due in large part to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, according to Robert McChesney, some 80 percent of all media, including television, radio, newspapers and magazines are now owned by only five mega-corporations (for example Disney and AOL-Time-Warner). This obvious conflict of interest has led to several well-documented cases in which investigative reports have been suppressed or stories have been edited to suit the interests of the owner.

The same logic that entitles corporations to free speech also guarantees them a prompt and impartial trial for their crimes. If they are found guilty, they should be subject to the same penalties levied against individuals. In Texas, that would likely mean a death sentence.

Rather than administer a lethal injection, we could revoke their corporate charters, dissolve the board of directors and turn control over to a group of public trustees. Knowing corporations' propensity for misdeeds, this sort of punishment may not have a deterrent value, but it could certainly make the families of the victims feel a lot better.

Metcalfe is a doctoral student in the Department of Astronomy