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Business and the Bill of Rights

15 January, 2016 - 09:29


  1. Understand and describe which articles in the Bill of Rights apply to business activities and how they apply.
  2. 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 ( Cases ). 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. 1
  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.