In 1976 the Supreme Court held in Buckley v. Valeo that the expenditure of money is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment. The implications of that case came to an absurd and unfortunate head with the January 21, 2010, decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. While the Buckley case allowed individuals unlimited spending in pursuit of political ends, Citizens United allows corporations that very same grace, and then some.
It is a strange moment in jurisprudence. On the one hand, corporations frequently restrict the expressions of employees or others within their purview: what they may wear, what their T-shirts may say, what political messages they may post on the walls of their cubicles. On the other, the inanimate entity of the corporation itself will now enjoy a range of First Amendment benefits not limited by principles of debate or substance, and it will be constrained only by the size of its treasury in deploying whatever technological bullhorn has the greatest chance of drowning out everyone else.
Hence, the questions on many minds are why "freedom" (as in speech) has become the functional equivalent of "expenditure" (as in money) and why on earth corporations are considered "persons" to begin with.
First, the Buckley decision has always been controversial, though until now it has been interpreted as allowing expenditures as a subcategory of the expressive power of living individuals only. A corporation, by contrast, is not only not human, it is property. A corporation has no natural life span, it does not vote and many are multinational. Corporations, even nonprofits, are necessarily exclusionary–their very existence premised on bottom-line calculations, competitive power grabs, branding and prospecting for self-promotion. A corporation is obliged by its bylaws to pursue its stated purpose and no other. It doesn’t change its nonexistent mind or respond with compassion or feel empathy. Thus, the "corporate citizenship" that the majority in Citizens United touts so blithely is a very different beast from citizenship founded on a constitution of enfranchised individuals and premised on a constituency of souls united in allegiance to an ideal of community, an egalitarianism of society, the mutual shelter of a nation.
Second, a word about the history of legal "persons": for more than a hundred years, certain inanimate entities have been granted the status of fictive personhood for limited purposes. The concept grew out of the necessity for businesses to negotiate as well as to be accountable in the marketplace. When, for example, a company manufactures a defective product and sells it to you, you sue the company–not the individual executives or employees (unless there has been some act of extreme wrongdoing on their part). In other words, the company is a kind of juridical stand-in for a person, with that status rooted in the efficiency interests of contract and property law.