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Peeps Ain’t Corps 

I plan to incorporate myself. I can do that for $100 in California. You should do the same. As Burstiner, Inc., I'd have corporate free speech rights. And that seems to be pretty strong protection these days.

Last month, an appellate court in D.C. told the federal government it couldn't force tobacco companies to put on cigarette packs nasty photos of cancerous gums or people with holes in their throats in an attempt to warn kids away from an addictive cancer-causing habit. Tobacco companies have corporate free speech rights.

And the U.S. Supreme Court has told the federal government that it can't limit the amount of money political groups raise to spend on political ads. Cigarette makers and sellers spent about $45 million in the last election on ads to convince California voters to reject Proposition 29. If passed, it would have raised millions of dollars for research to fight cancer through a tax on cigarettes.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a Vermont law unconstitutional that tried to restrict drug companies' ability to buy from pharmacies data that showed which doctors prescribe particular drugs. Called data-mining, this helped the drug companies identify doctors more likely to prescribe certain types of drugs, so the companies could better tailor their marketing. They want doctors to prescribe the more expensive drugs, not cheaper generics. Vermont argued that its law restricted corporate conduct, not speech. The court said that the buying of the prescription drug info was "creation and dissemination of information" and that's corporate speech that our First Amendment protects.

So here's what our courts have done in the name of corporate free speech. They limited the government's ability to try to keep our teenagers off a highly addictive habit that could kill them. (Commenting on the cigarette pack decision, Tina Rosenberg of the New York Times cited statistics that only 1 in 10 people will take up smoking after age 18.) They denied the government's ability to limit the raising of money corporations spend to try to influence elections. So now tobacco companies can spend ridiculous sums to prevent a tax that would help us treat people who get cancer from smoking cigarettes. And the government can't stop drug companies from buying information about what drugs our doctors prescribe to us, which means the drug companies can use that info to get us to buy more expensive drugs once we get cancer from smoking or inhaling second-hand smoke.

All of this is a result of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission in 2010, in which the Supreme Court determined that corporations are persons and entitled to the full protection of the U.S. Constitution.

Come November, Arcata residents get to vote on an initiative that will declare that within the city of Arcata, corporations will not have the rights of persons. The "Corps Ain't Peeps" initiative is symbolic, of course, since city laws don't trump U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

Former Arcata city councilman Dave Meserve spent days standing in the rain last winter gathering signatures to put the measure on the ballot. He hopes to get other towns to adopt similar measures. It is part of a movement, led by Eureka resident David Cobb, to amend the U.S. Constitution to establish that corporations are not persons and money is not speech.

Talk about David versus Goliath. As just a peep, not a corp., I've never felt more puny. Every month, it seems, I read about how the government can't restrict corporate speech, even as I see evidence that corporate media restricts private speech.

On Aug. 25, New York Times reporter David Streitfeld on Sunday profiled Todd Rutherford, a man who made $28,000 a month for a while posting great online reviews to self-published books for pay. (Brilliant idea! I should have thought of that first!) That is, until Google decided it didn't like the idea of advertising for favorable reviews. It suspended his advertising account and Streitfeld tells us that Rutherford now sells recreational vehicles.

In May, Fahmida Rashid of PC Magazine reported how some Facebook users get an error message when they try to post comments. The message explains that the comment was blocked because it "seems irrelevant or inappropriate."

I'm not sure about the appropriateness of comments I make on Facebook, but I'm pretty sure they are all irrelevant.

For all you out there who revel in how many people receive your Tweets, or how many Linkedin or Facebook friends you can message at one time, note that these platforms you post to run on algorithms. That's a fancy word for a complicated mathematical formula. Tweak the formula and suddenly any post with the word "rutabaga" gets blocked. Tweak the Google search algorithm and suddenly certain websites end up on the 15th page of the search, rather than at the top of the first page.

Could the government force Google to make its search fair to the little guy or tell Facebook or Twitter what it can or can't block? I don't think so. The decision for the pharmacies against the state of Vermont made the creation and dissemination of information by businesses protected free speech. Google and Facebook and Twitter are all about the dissemination of information. I can't imagine the courts will let the government dictate how they do that.

In past columns this year, I argued that speech you buy is more powerful than speech that's free and that bought speech is more protected. But Rutherford paid for his speech and Google took it down. If he were Rutherford Advertising Agency Inc., however, I bet I'd still see his ads when I Googled info on how to promote my self-published books. And as a corporation, with corporate free speech rights, the government couldn't force him to put warning labels on his reviews informing readers how bogus those reviews were (in some cases Rutherford never read the books he reviewed).

So it isn't enough to pay for your speech to ensure its protection against censorship. You need to incorporate yourself. Let's be corps, not peeps.

Marcy Burstiner is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. She will favorably review your self-published book for $50 a pop. If you want her to actually read it, that will cost $100. If you want the review to read as if it were from someone who actually read the book, please include an extra $25. For search engine optimization she will include in her review a reference to Adele for $15 more. So that you can send her reviews to all your Facebook friends and Twitter them to the world, she guarantees that the reviews will have no inappropriate language and will be utterly irrelevant.


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About The Author

Marcy Burstiner

Marcy Burstiner is a professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. If there's something about the media that confuses you, e-mail her at

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