Mar 7, 2012, Vol: 19, No: 10
Every couple of days, Craig Salins opens his post office box to find it stuffed with forms mailed to him from all over Western Washington.
Each one is signed by people who agree that corporations are not people, money is not free speech and that state and federal legislators can regulate campaign contributions.
Salins is head of a grassroots campaign to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a decision that has opened the floodgates for corporate spending in elections.
He and others are asking the Seattle City Council to pass a resolution stating corporations aren’t people and urging legislators in Washington, D.C. to create a constitutional amendment limiting the rights of corporations, overturning the controversial 2010 Supreme Court ruling.
Hence, the forms. Salins and members of Occupy Seattle take them everywhere they go. They pass them out at meetings and churches, stuff them into copies of
The Stranger and the Seattle Weekly and leave them at coffee shops.
With the forms, Salins and his compatriots have collected thousands of signatures—proof, he believes, of a groundswell of anger over corporate influence in elections.
“Public policy and law-making is essentially up for auction to the biggest donors,” he said.
The campaign has had some success. Seattle City Councilmembers Nick Licata, Richard Conlin and Tim Burgess have agreed to sponsor a resolution in favor of a constitutional amendment. Licata said that as long as it can be attached to something already on the ballot, to mitigate the cost, the city of Seattle would put an advisory vote on the ballot in November.
It’s the longest of long shots, nonetheless. New York and Los Angeles passed similar resolutions, but neither of them are binding. Votes and resolutions can apply pressure to politicians in Washington, D.C., but a constitutional amendment requires a rigorous process that takes years.
Citizens United, the movie
Long before Citizens United became a catchphrase for corporate personhood, it was just a right-leaning organization that wanted to air “Hillary: The Movie,” a documentary critical of then presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.
The group wanted to air the film within 30 days of a primary election, but the Federal Elections Commission forbade it.
A lower court upheld the FEC decision, describing the film as an elongated attack ad and in violation of electioneering laws.
Citizens United challenged the law, and the Supreme Court agreed, stating that government cannot stifle the political spending of an organization.
Since then, so-called super PACs have sprouted up to support or oppose electoral candidates. These nonprofit organizations can essentially campaign for a specific candidate and spend unlimited amounts of money so long as they don’t collaborate directly with the candidate.
Jeff Clements, author of “Corporations Are Not People,” said an amendment is necessary to reverse the Supreme Court’s decision.
“Citizens United was a constitutional case,” he said. “The only way to overrule the Supreme Court is by constitutional amendment.”
But a constitutional amendment takes a massive amount of support from both elected leaders and their constituents. It requires a two-thirds majority vote in the House and Senate. Then 75 percent of the states have to ratify the amendment by vote.
The last successful grassroots campaign to amend the Constitution was to change the legal voting age to 18.
An amendment dealing with corporate personhood is a far tougher sell than voting age, Salins said.
“Vietnam was going on, body bags were coming back, the whole country understood that if 18-year-olds could hold a rifle that they could vote,” he said.
An “impossible” task?
Not every opponent of the Citizens United ruling agrees that an amendment is the way to address it. Ronald Collins, a constitutional law professor at the University of Washington, said a constitutional amendment is a bad idea and would create more problems for free speech.
“It’s an impossible task,” he said. “They cannot cure the problem that offends them without creating all sorts of major problems.”
Such an amendment, he said, could stop long-established organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP.
He argued that denying corporations free speech rights could stifle news media.
Collins said any amendment would have to be lengthy to cover all sorts of exceptions. And he said eventually wealthy corporations would find a work-around.
Even with those exceptions, Collins called the amendment ill-advised simply because the country has never amended the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution.
“It just sets an extremely dangerous precedent,” Collins said. “Don’t fuck with our Bill of Rights.”
Collins said instead, people should focus their efforts on open and stringent disclosure laws.
He also encouraged people to hold President Barack Obama accountable for going back on his initial opposition to Citizens United. Obama opposed the decision, but is now turning to corporate donors for his re-election campaign.
Clements, on the other hand, said we need all of it: disclosure, new court decisions and an amendment. He said the amendment doesn’t do anything harmful to the Bill of Rights.
“It’s just the opposite,” he said. “The Bill of Rights has been deeply messed with.”
Voice of dissent
The Washington, D.C.-based Common Cause started a campaign called Amendment 2012 to get statewide advisory votes calling for a constitutional amendment.
Voter Action started a group called Free Speech for People, which has drafted language for a constitutional amendment.
Building the voice of dissent right now is more important than what an amendment will say or if an amendment will happen, said Mary Boyle of Common Cause.
“We feel the two important things this should recognize is that corporations are not people and that money is not free speech,” she said. “Therefore, it can have sensible limits. It can be sensibly regulated.”
Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata said he supports pushing for a constitutional amendment but concedes it’s a long way off.
“I think it would be a real game changer in the United States, but I don’t see it as an immediate solution,” he said.
To Salins, however, a constitutional amendment is the only solution, and there’s only one way to get there.
“It won’t happen,” he said, “without a nationwide movement.”<< Back to Article Details