Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Science, Law, Corporations and Barking Dogs

By Bob Ferris

In statistics there is a custom known as “scope of inference.” Basically, this rule of operation holds that if you analyze A and B you cannot make broad inferences about C. In other words, you have to confine your comments and conclusions to the relationships and universe you actually examined. You can broaden the scope of inference by including sampling across a broader spectrum of conditions or characters, but the rule pretty much limits allowable statements and assumptions. This is generally how the science lens deals with issues.

The above is in sharp contrast with the recent Supreme Court decision regarding free speech and corporate political involvement. The high court concluded that corporations were covered under the First Amendment’s freedom of speech language. In my limited scientific lens, I tend to think that the legal equivalent of the scope of inference for the Constitution starts and ends with “We, the People,” unless specifically expanded. Take the first amendment for example, there the “scope” is expanded to include the Press, which the framers clearly saw as different than the people. The framers made specific and measured reference to a non-We, the People entity. In other sections, the Constitution talks about other entities such as states and militias all clearly dealt with and brought into the fold of the clauses in question, but not beyond.

On the subject of corporations, the Constitution is absolutely mute—nada. The word “corporation” is not even mentioned anywhere in the document. Business is mentioned only in the context of the business of Congress and commerce jumps in only as something that Congress shall regulate. So how could anyone conclude from the Constitution that corporations have the right of freedom of speech? By this same logic I could argue that barking dog ordinances were unconstitutional because they denied noisy pets the right of free speech. And that would be silly wouldn’t it?

A recent Washington Post/ABC poll indicated that most—a super majority—of Americans wanted corporate political participation reined in ) and FaceBook sign-ups for pages that call for an end to corporate personhood and a constitutional amendment are gaining more and more support every day.


  1. Your comparison of free speech to a barking dog is silly. The right of free speech allows for saying whatever you like without governmental squelching. However, that does not allow anyone to go up to your house and talk to you through a bullhorn at any time of day. The right of free speech applies to the content, not the actual delivery of the content.

  2. I think that you entirely missed the point. Free speech is granted by the our constitution to individuals and the press. Period. The drafters--including my great, great, etc. uncle and also Thomas Jefferson were very leery of the undue influence of corporations (see Boston Tea Party). The barking dog comment does not relate to the noise or delivery systems but rather the source of the noise. Corporation do not have speech rights. What they say is and should be regulated. Certainly Exxon should not be able to say that gas is good to eat. Right? And cigarette companies should not be able to say that smoking is good for your health when we know it is not. Right? So why should they be able to "sell" is candidates that might be good for them and not us?