Corporations used to be described as a “legal fiction” which could be treated for certain business purposes as an individual. It had certain rights, including the right to hire and fire employees and to put out a business newsletter, if it chose. It could extend its “tentacles” to other countries on other continents. (In certain political circles, corporations do not have branches, like a bank; it has “tentacles.”) But I always thought that when I sent a complaining letter to a company, whose last name was “inc.” that I was writing to someone in an office somewhere, rather than to the company itself. But, according to a recent Supreme Court opinion, corporations share the right to free speech that is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and that I had previously thought was limited to human beings. If you had asked me back then, I would have said that only human beings can talk, along with a few animals like dogs and parrots. And neither one of them speaks well enough to engage in a conversation. I’m sure that when my dog barks up a storm, it considers its speech to be free, no matter how much I yell at her, but I don’t think the Founding Fathers were thinking of dogs when they wrote about free speech.
I also don’t think that the Founding Fathers were thinking of inanimate objects or Platonic abstractions when they wrote the Bill of Rights. They were not thinking of a tea kettle that might want to whistle, but was being prevented from doing so by someone taking it off the fire. They were not thinking of the wind which “bloweth where it listeth,” unless it is interfered with by someone putting up a windbreak. Perhaps the wind wishes to howl in the night, but it does so without considering its rights under the first amendment. Similarly, a book, which may have thousands of words, does not speak freely in the sense that a human being does. The book itself does not have the right to sit on a shelf or lie propped up against my sandwich. The book may express opinions, but they are not the book’s opinions. They are the opinions of the author who wrote the book. The book is not sentient. It makes no complaints when I write in the margins. It is not offended by my tearing out a page, no matter what a librarian might say.
However, like every other American, I have to adjust my opinion to the opinion of the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court thinks a corporation can choose to eat donuts every day for breakfast, however ill-advised such a diet would be, the corporation has the right to do so. If the corporation wishes to belch, it can. It may not yell “fire” in a crowded theater, or speak “fighting words” if challenged in a bar; but it has all the same rights that you and I have. The Supreme Court is threatening to say, for similar reasons—whatever those reasons are—that corporations may have religious rights that cannot be abridged by acts of congress. Since I have begun considering this, I have become suspicious of my professional corporation, “Fredric Neuman M.D. P.C.” which I have long suspected of trying to undermine my well-being.
Many years ago, on the advice of my accountant, I formed my medical practice into a professional corporation with the expectation that doing so would save me money and that someday I would be rich. It hasn’t worked out that way, and I have become disgruntled. Somehow, every year, I make less money than my corporation. The money gets siphoned off into something called a “profit sharing plan,” or into “depreciation,” whatever that is. I am the sole employee, and I think I should be profiting from the “profit sharing plan;” but I am not. Although I like to think well of everyone, I have begun to suspect that the corporation and the accountant are in cahoots in trying to take advantage of me.
When I inquire about some of my corporate deductions such as “publicity” and “miscellaneous,” my accountant smiles at me condescendingly. “It save the corporation money,” he says. When I ask him “Why do I have to pay a commuter tax if I don’t commute?” “It’s an obligation of the corporation,” he replies to me slyly. “Could the corporation be commuting without me?” He refuses to answer. He points out that he works for the corporation and not for me. “Who is it who pays my bill?” he asks, chortling and chuckling cynically.
Still, over all the years, I have explained away the complexities of the corporation and its perversities as “just one of those things.” But now, since the Supreme Court has suggested that my corporation is entitled to its opinions, I wonder if there is not some malevolent purpose at work.
There have always been strange flyers that appeared unsought in my office from Chinese restaurants that offered takeout and companies that wished to clean my office; but from time to time I noticed that other things began to appear. Every once in a while, the ”Christian Science Monitor” the house organ of the Christian Scientists, would appear in my waiting room, left by a patient, I thought naively. Then, I began to find pamphlets put out by the “Jehovah’s Witnesses,” another religious sect that I could not help noticing decried the use of medicine and medical services, as did the Christian Scientists.
Around the same time-- by coincidence, I thought-- two pleasant young men came to the door of my home wishing to engage me in a discussion about their religious principles. They were Mormons, also known by their secret name, “Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” They said they had been sent to me by a higher power. I wonder. I realize now that all of this religious enquiry was an outgrowth of my professional corporation entering into a spiritual quest. It is the only explanation that makes sense. My corporation is seeking to express its religious rights.
I wonder now if I should be concerned about whether or not my corporation really approves of my practicing medicine, which just possibly is against its religious principles. This is a personal concern, besides being a professional concern, since my corporation pays all my medical bills and those of my family. Suppose it gets into its head the idea that it should not pay for contraception. Since my wife and I are of an advanced age, it hasn’t occurred to me for some time to worry about such matters; still, you never know what the future might bring.
When I sit quietly in my office at the end of a strenuous day, I think I can hear the sounds of someone muttering—or praying. I have become uneasy. The phone rings sometimes, and there is no one at the other end. I have taken to disconnecting my phone when I leave the office. Still, I am afraid my corporation has taken to sabotaging my practice. I can’t find anything where I put it. When I lock up to go home, I hear ghostly laughter. Sometimes I hear heavy breathing.
If my professional corporation decides to exert its other first amendment rights: the right to assemble freely with other corporations and put out its own newspaper, I am closing my practice. (c) Fredric Neuman Author of "Come One, Come All" Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ or ask advice at fredricneumanmd.com/blog/ask-dr-neuman-advice-column/