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4.5: Business and the Bill of Rights

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    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • Understand and describe which articles in the Bill of Rights apply to business activities and how they apply.
    • Explain the application of the Fourteenth Amendment—including the due process clause and the equal protection clause—to various rights enumerated in the original Bill of Rights.

    We have already seen the Fourteenth Amendment’s application in Burger King v. Rudzewicz (Section 3.9). In that case, the court considered whether it was constitutionally correct for a court to assert personal jurisdiction over a nonresident. The states cannot constitutionally award a judgment against a nonresident if doing so would offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice. Even if the state’s long-arm statute would seem to allow such a judgment, other states should not give it full faith and credit (see Article V of the Constitution). In short, a state’s long-arm statute cannot confer personal jurisdiction that the state cannot constitutionally claim.

    The Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) was originally meant to apply to federal actions only. During the twentieth century, the court began to apply selected rights to state action as well. So, for example, federal agents were prohibited from using evidence seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment, but state agents were not, until Mapp v. Ohio (1960), when the court applied the guarantees (rights) of the Fourth Amendment to state action as well. In this and in similar cases, the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause was the basis for the court’s action. The due process clause commanded that states provide due process in cases affecting the life, liberty, or property of US citizens, and the court saw in this command certain “fundamental guarantees” that states would have to observe. Over the years, most of the important guarantees in the Bill of Rights came to apply to state as well as federal action. The court refers to this process as selective incorporation.

    Here are some very basic principles to remember:

    1. The guarantees of the Bill of Rights apply only to state and federal government action. They do not limit what a company or person in the private sector may do. For example, states may not impose censorship on the media or limit free speech in a way that offends the First Amendment, but your boss (in the private sector) may order you not to talk to the media.
    2. In some cases, a private company may be regarded as participating in “state action.” For example, a private defense contractor that gets 90 percent of its business from the federal government has been held to be public for purposes of enforcing the constitutional right to free speech (the company had a rule barring its employees from speaking out in public against its corporate position). It has even been argued that public regulation of private activity is sufficient to convert the private into public activity, thus subjecting it to the requirements of due process. But the Supreme Court rejected this extreme view in 1974 when it refused to require private power companies, regulated by the state, to give customers a hearing before cutting off electricity for failure to pay the bill.Jackson v. Metropolitan Edison Co., 419 US 345 (1974).
    3. States have rights, too. While “states rights” was a battle cry of Southern states before the Civil War, the question of what balance to strike between state sovereignty and federal union has never been simple. In Kimel v. Florida, for example, the Supreme Court found in the words of the Eleventh Amendment a basis for declaring that states may not have to obey certain federal statutes.

    First Amendment

    In part, the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” The Founding Fathers believed that democracy would work best if people (and the press) could talk or write freely, without governmental interference. But the First Amendment was also not intended to be as absolute as it sounded. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous dictum that the law does not permit you to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater has seldom been answered, “But why not?” And no one in 1789 thought that defamation laws (torts for slander and libel) had been made unconstitutional. Moreover, because the apparent purpose of the First Amendment was to make sure that the nation had a continuing, vigorous debate over matters political, political speech has been given the highest level of protection over such other forms of speech as (1) “commercial speech,” (2) speech that can and should be limited by reasonable “time, place, and manner” restrictions, or (3) obscene speech.

    Because of its higher level of protection, political speech can be false, malicious, mean-spirited, or even a pack of lies. A public official in the United States must be prepared to withstand all kinds of false accusations and cannot succeed in an action for defamation unless the defendant has acted with “malice” and “reckless disregard” of the truth. Public figures, such as CEOs of the largest US banks, must also be prepared to withstand accusations that are false. In any defamation action, truth is a defense, but a defamation action brought by a public figure or public official must prove that the defendant not only has his facts wrong but also lies to the public in a malicious way with reckless disregard of the truth. Celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan and Jon Stewart have the same burden to go forward with a defamation action. It is for this reason that the National Enquirer writes exclusively about public figures, public officials, and celebrities; it is possible to say many things that aren’t completely true and still have the protection of the First Amendment.

    Political speech is so highly protected that the court has recognized the right of people to support political candidates through campaign contributions and thus promote the particular viewpoints and speech of those candidates. Fearing the influence of money on politics, Congress has from time to time placed limitations on corporate contributions to political campaigns. But the Supreme Court has had mixed reactions over time. Initially, the court recognized the First Amendment right of a corporation to donate money, subject to certain limits.Buckley v. Valeo, 424 US 1 (1976). In another case, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990), the Michigan Campaign Finance Act prohibited corporations from using treasury money for independent expenditures to support or oppose candidates in elections for state offices. But a corporation could make such expenditures if it set up an independent fund designated solely for political purposes. The law was passed on the assumption that “the unique legal and economic characteristics of corporations necessitate some regulation of their political expenditures to avoid corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

    The Michigan Chamber of Commerce wanted to support a candidate for Michigan’s House of Representatives by using general funds to sponsor a newspaper advertisement and argued that as a nonprofit organization, it was not really like a business firm. The court disagreed and upheld the Michigan law. Justice Marshall found that the chamber was akin to a business group, given its activities, linkages with community business leaders, and high percentage of members (over 75 percent) that were business corporations. Furthermore, Justice Marshall found that the statute was narrowly crafted and implemented to achieve the important goal of maintaining integrity in the political process. But as you will see in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (Section 4.6), Austin was overruled; corporations are recognized as “persons” with First Amendment political speech rights that cannot be impaired by Congress or the states without some compelling governmental interest with restrictions on those rights that are “narrowly tailored.”

    Fourth Amendment

    The Fourth Amendment says, “all persons shall be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects from unreasonable searches and seizures, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, before a magistrate and upon Oath, specifically describing the persons to be searched and places to be seized.”

    The court has read the Fourth Amendment to prohibit only those government searches or seizures that are “unreasonable.” Because of this, businesses that are in an industry that is “closely regulated” can be searched more frequently and can be searched without a warrant. In one case, an auto parts dealer at a junkyard was charged with receiving stolen auto parts. Part of his defense was to claim that the search that found incriminating evidence was unconstitutional. But the court found the search reasonable, because the dealer was in a “closely regulated industry.”

    In the 1980s, Dow Chemical objected to an overflight by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA had rented an airplane to fly over the Midland, Michigan, Dow plant, using an aerial mapping camera to photograph various pipes, ponds, and machinery that were not covered by a roof. Because the court’s precedents allowed governmental intrusions into “open fields,” the EPA search was ruled constitutional. Because the literal language of the Fourth Amendment protected “persons, houses, papers, and effects,” anything searched by the government in “open fields” was reasonable. (The court’s opinion suggested that if Dow had really wanted privacy from governmental intrusion, it could have covered the pipes and machinery that were otherwise outside and in open fields.)

    Note again that constitutional guarantees like the Fourth Amendment apply to governmental action. Your employer or any private enterprise is not bound by constitutional limits. For example, if drug testing of all employees every week is done by government agency, the employees may have a cause of action to object based on the Fourth Amendment. However, if a private employer begins the same kind of routine drug testing, employees have no constitutional arguments to make; they can simply leave that employer, or they may pursue whatever statutory or common-law remedies are available.

    Fifth Amendment

    The Fifth Amendment states, “No person shall be…deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

    The Fifth Amendment has three principal aspects: procedural due process, the takings clause, and substantive due process. In terms of procedural due process, the amendment prevents government from arbitrarily taking the life of a criminal defendant. In civil lawsuits, it is also constitutionally essential that the proceedings be fair. This is why, for example, the defendant in Burger King v. Rudzewicz had a serious constitutional argument, even though he lost.

    The takings clause of the Fifth Amendment ensures that the government does not take private property without just compensation. In the international setting, governments that take private property engage in what is called expropriation. The standard under customary international law is that when governments do that, they must provide prompt, adequate, and effective compensation. This does not always happen, especially where foreign owners’ property is being expropriated. The guarantees of the Fifth Amendment (incorporated against state action by the Fourteenth Amendment) are available to property owners where state, county, or municipal government uses the power of eminent domain to take private property for public purposes. Just what is a public purpose is a matter of some debate. For example, if a city were to condemn economically viable businesses or neighborhoods to construct a baseball stadium with public money to entice a private enterprise (the baseball team) to stay, is a public purpose being served?

    In Kelo v. City of New London, Mrs. Kelo and other residents fought the city of New London, in its attempt to use powers of eminent domain to create an industrial park and recreation area that would have Pfizer & Co. as a principal tenant.Kelo v. City of New London, 545 US 469 (2005). The city argued that increasing its tax base was a sufficient public purpose. In a very close decision, the Supreme Court determined that New London’s actions did not violate the takings clause. However, political reactions in various states resulted in a great deal of new state legislation that would limit the scope of public purpose in eminent domain takings and provide additional compensation to property owners in many cases.

    In addition to the takings clause and aspects of procedural due process, the Fifth Amendment is also the source of what is called substantive due process. During the first third of the twentieth century, the Supreme Court often nullified state and federal laws using substantive due process. In 1905, for example, in Lochner v. New York, the Supreme Court voided a New York statute that limited the number of hours that bakers could work in a single week. New York had passed the law to protect the health of employees, but the court found that this law interfered with the basic constitutional right of private parties to freely contract with one another. Over the next thirty years, dozens of state and federal laws were struck down that aimed to improve working conditions, secure social welfare, or establish the rights of unions. However, in 1934, during the Great Depression, the court reversed itself and began upholding the kinds of laws it had struck down earlier.

    Since then, the court has employed a two-tiered analysis of substantive due process claims. Under the first tier, legislation on economic matters, employment relations, and other business affairs is subject to minimal judicial scrutiny. This means that a law will be overturned only if it serves no rational government purpose. Under the second tier, legislation concerning fundamental liberties is subject to “heightened judicial scrutiny,” meaning that a law will be invalidated unless it is “narrowly tailored to serve a significant government purpose.”

    The Supreme Court has identified two distinct categories of fundamental liberties. The first category includes most of the liberties expressly enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Through a process known as selective incorporation, the court has interpreted the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to bar states from denying their residents the most important freedoms guaranteed in the first ten amendments to the federal Constitution. Only the Third Amendment right (against involuntary quartering of soldiers) and the Fifth Amendment right to be indicted by a grand jury have not been made applicable to the states. Because these rights are still not applicable to state governments, the Supreme Court is often said to have “selectively incorporated” the Bill of Rights into the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

    The second category of fundamental liberties includes those liberties that are not expressly stated in the Bill of Rights but that can be seen as essential to the concepts of freedom and equality in a democratic society. These unstated liberties come from Supreme Court precedents, common law, moral philosophy, and deeply rooted traditions of US legal history. The Supreme Court has stressed that he word liberty cannot be defined by a definitive list of rights; rather, it must be viewed as a rational continuum of freedom through which every aspect of human behavior is protected from arbitrary impositions and random restraints. In this regard, as the Supreme Court has observed, the due process clause protects abstract liberty interests, including the right to personal autonomy, bodily integrity, self-dignity, and self-determination.

    These liberty interests often are grouped to form a general right to privacy, which was first recognized in Griswold v. Connecticut (Section 4.6.1), where the Supreme Court struck down a state statute forbidding married adults from using, possessing, or distributing contraceptives on the ground that the law violated the sanctity of the marital relationship. According to Justice Douglas’s plurality opinion, this penumbra of privacy, though not expressly mentioned in the Bill of Rights, must be protected to establish a buffer zone or breathing space for those freedoms that are constitutionally enumerated.

    But substantive due process has seen fairly limited use since the 1930s. During the 1990s, the Supreme Court was asked to recognize a general right to die under the doctrine of substantive due process. Although the court stopped short of establishing such a far-reaching right, certain patients may exercise a constitutional liberty to hasten their deaths under a narrow set of circumstances. In Cruzan v. Missouri Department of Health, the Supreme Court ruled that the due process clause guarantees the right of competent adults to make advanced directives for the withdrawal of life-sustaining measures should they become incapacitated by a disability that leaves them in a persistent vegetative state.Cruzan v. Missouri Department of Health, 497 US 261 (1990). Once it has been established by clear and convincing evidence that a mentally incompetent and persistently vegetative patient made such a prior directive, a spouse, parent, or other appropriate guardian may seek to terminate any form of artificial hydration or nutrition.

    Fourteenth Amendment: Due Process and Equal Protection Guarantees

    The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) requires that states treat citizens of other states with due process. This can be either an issue of procedural due process (as in Section 3.9, Burger King v. Rudzewicz) or an issue of substantive due process. For substantive due process, consider what happened in an Alabama court not too long ago.BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559 (1996)

    The plaintiff, Dr. Ira Gore, bought a new BMW for $40,000 from a dealer in Alabama. He later discovered that the vehicle’s exterior had been slightly damaged in transit from Europe and had therefore been repainted by the North American distributor prior to his purchase. The vehicle was, by best estimates, worth about 10 percent less than he paid for it. The distributor, BMW of North America, had routinely sold slightly damaged cars as brand new if the damage could be fixed for less than 3 percent of the cost of the car. In the trial, Dr. Gore sought $4,000 in compensatory damages and also punitive damages. The Alabama trial jury considered that BMW was engaging in a fraudulent practice and wanted to punish the defendant for a number of frauds it estimated at somewhere around a thousand nationwide. The jury awarded not only the $4,000 in compensatory damages but also $4 million in punitive damages, which was later reduced to $2 million by the Alabama Supreme Court. On appeal to the US Supreme Court, the court found that punitive damages may not be “grossly excessive.” If they are, then they violate substantive due process. Whatever damages a state awards must be limited to what is reasonably necessary to vindicate the state’s legitimate interest in punishment and deterrence.

    “Equal protection of the laws” is a phrase that originates in the Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868. The amendment provides that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” This is the equal protection clause. It means that, generally speaking, governments must treat people equally. Unfair classifications among people or corporations will not be permitted. A well-known example of unfair classification would be race discrimination: requiring white children and black children to attend different public schools or requiring “separate but equal” public services, such as water fountains or restrooms. Yet despite the clear intent of the 1868 amendment, “separate but equal” was the law of the land until Brown v. Board of Education (1954).Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 US 537 (1896).

    Governments make classifications every day, so not all classifications can be illegal under the equal protection clause. People with more income generally pay a greater percentage of their income in taxes. People with proper medical training are licensed to become doctors; people without that training cannot be licensed and commit a criminal offense if they do practice medicine. To know what classifications are permissible under the Fourteenth Amendment, we need to know what is being classified. The court has created three classifications, and the outcome of any equal protection case can usually be predicted by knowing how the court is likely to classify the case:

    • Minimal scrutiny: economic and social relations. Government actions are usually upheld if there is a rational basis for them.
    • Intermediate scrutiny: gender. Government classifications are sometimes upheld.
    • Strict scrutiny: race, ethnicity, and fundamental rights. Classifications based on any of these are almost never upheld.

    Under minimal scrutiny for economic and social regulation, laws that regulate economic or social issues are presumed valid and will be upheld if they are rationally related to legitimate goals of government. So, for example, if the city of New Orleans limits the number of street vendors to some rational number (more than one but fewer than the total number that could possibly fit on the sidewalks), the local ordinance would not be overturned as a violation of equal protection.

    Under intermediate scrutiny, the city of New Orleans might limit the number of street vendors who are men. For example, suppose that the city council decreed that all street vendors must be women, thinking that would attract even more tourism. A classification like this, based on sex, will have to meet a sterner test than a classification resulting from economic or social regulation. A law like this would have to substantially relate to important government objectives. Increasingly, courts have nullified government sex classifications as societal concern with gender equality has grown. (See Shannon Faulkner’s case against The Citadel, an all-male state school.)United States v. Virginia, 518 US 515 (1996).

    Suppose, however, that the city of New Orleans decided that no one of Middle Eastern heritage could drive a taxicab or be a street vendor. That kind of classification would be examined with strict scrutiny to see if there was any compelling justification for it. As noted, classifications such as this one are almost never upheld. The law would be upheld only if it were necessary to promote a compelling state interest. Very few laws that have a racial or ethnic classification meet that test.

    The strict scrutiny test will be applied to classifications involving racial and ethnic criteria as well as classifications that interfere with a fundamental right. In Palmore v. Sidoti, the state refused to award custody to the mother because her new spouse was racially different from the child.Palmore v. Sidoti, 466 US 429 (1984).This practice was declared unconstitutional because the state had made a racial classification; this was presumptively invalid, and the government could not show a compelling need to enforce such a classification through its law. An example of government action interfering with a fundamental right will also receive strict scrutiny. When New York State gave an employment preference to veterans who had been state residents at the time of entering the military, the court declared that veterans who were new to the state were less likely to get jobs and that therefore the statute interfered with the right to travel, which was deemed a fundamental right.Atty. Gen. of New York v. Soto-Lopez, 476 US 898 (1986).

    Key Takeaway

    The Bill of Rights, through the Fourteenth Amendment, largely applies to state actions. The Bill of Rights has applied to federal actions from the start. Both the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment apply to business in various ways, but it is important to remember that the rights conferred are rights against governmental action and not the actions of private enterprise.


    1. John Hanks works at ProLogis. The company decides to institute a drug-testing policy. John is a good and longtime employee but enjoys smoking marijuana on the weekends. The drug testing will involve urine samples and, semiannually, a hair sample. It is nearly certain that the drug-testing protocol that ProLogis proposes will find that Hanks is a marijuana user. The company has made it clear that it will have zero tolerance for any kind of nonprescribed controlled substances. John and several fellow employees wish to go to court to challenge the proposed testing as “an unreasonable search and seizure.” Can he possibly succeed?
    2. Larry Reed, majority leader in the Senate, is attacked in his reelection campaign by a series of ads sponsored by a corporation (Global Defense, Inc.) that does not like his voting record. The corporation is upset that Reed would not write a special provision that would favor Global Defense in a defense appropriations bill. The ads run constantly on television and radio in the weeks immediately preceding election day and contain numerous falsehoods. For example, in order to keep the government running financially, Reed found it necessary to vote for a bill that included a last-minute rider that defunded a small government program for the handicapped, sponsored by someone in the opposing party that wanted to privatize all programs for the handicapped. The ad is largely paid for by Global Defense and depicts a handicapped child being helped by the existing program and large letters saying “Does Larry Reed Just Not Care?” The ad proclaims that it is sponsored by Citizens Who Care for a Better Tomorrow. Is this protected speech? Why or why not? Can Reed sue for defamation? Why or why not?

    This page titled 4.5: Business and the Bill of Rights is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anonymous.

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