On Thursday, Jan. 21, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that’s already reverberating throughout the nation.
The decision, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, allows business corporations to donate unlimited amounts of money to electoral campaigns, including attack ads. The Court ruled that for-profit corporations can exercise their First Amendment rights to lobby candidates by buying the outcomes of elections.
Even President Obama, in an ephemeral moment of liberal feeling, opposes the decision. According to the New York Times, right after the court issued the decision, Obama called it “a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics.”
Writing for the minority (the four liberal judges), Justice John Paul Stevens said the ruling was a ”radical departure from what had been settled First Amendment law.”
Citizens United affects corporate election campaigning and freedom of speech. It defines corporate election contributions to electoral campaigns as freedom of speech and equates money with words and profit-making corporations with human beings.
"The judiciary has conferred constitutional 'rights' to corporations."
Robert Weissman, director of Public Citizen and writer of the column Focus on the Corporation, said, “As corporations are state-created entities, not real people. ... Unlike humans, they are uniquely motivated by a singular focus on their economic bottom line. Corporate spending on elections defeats rather than advances the democratic thrust of the First Amendment.”
And public interest advocate Ralph Nader said of the ruling, “This corporatist, anti-voter decision is so extreme that it should galvanize a grassroots effort to enact a Constitutional Amendment to once and for all end corporate personhood and curtail the corrosive impact of big money on politics.”
Before Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, corporations were obligated to make campaign contributions through political action committees. Now they can give unrestricted amounts of money directly to political candidates.
Because the decision was based on First Amendment constitutional law, it will affect not only the federal level of government but also the state levels, including state judicial elections.
“Democracy is rule of the people -- real, live humans, not artificial entity corporations. Now it's time for the people to reassert their rights,” Wiessman wrote in the Jan. 22 issue of Focus on the Corporation.
The stated goals of Citizens United, the organization that won the lawsuit are:
- “To reassert the traditional American values of limited government, freedom of enterprise, strong families, and national sovereignty and security," and
- To restore the founding fathers' vision of a free nation, guided by the honesty, common sense, and good will of its citizens."
The libertarian Cato Institute, one of the supporters of Citizens United and its lawsuit, published the following comment, according to Sudna Krishna, writing in the Jan. 21 NowPublic.com: "Today the Supreme Court struck a major blow for free speech by correctly holding that government cannot try to 'level the political playing field' by banning corporations from making independent campaign expenditures on films, books, or even campaign signs. ... In short, the Citizens United decision has strengthened both the First Amendment and American democracy."
This decision in Citizens United didn’t come out of the blue. “Over the past 30 years, the Supreme Court has created and steadily expanded the First Amendment protections that it has afforded for-profit corporations” Weissman wrote.
"Because the decision was based on First Amendment constitutional law, it will affect not only the federal level of government but also the state levels, including state judicial elections."
Actually, the roots of the decision are traceable to a much older ruling, one based on the 14th Amendment and granting corporations personhood under the law. That ruling is Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad and dates back to 1886. Out of it came the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution recognizing corporations as legal “persons” with the rights real people have.
The judiciary has conferred constitutional “rights” to corporations. As the Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy (POCLAD) wrote in an open letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, “For two centuries the Supreme Court justices, have been at the center of affirming and expanding corporate rule and placing corporations well beyond the authority of the people.”
Progressives’ reaction to the Citizens United ruling came swiftly. “In this decision, a handful of unelected judges have revealed their agenda to expand the influence of corporations at the expense of the rights of individuals, and it will not stand the test of time,” said Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy and former chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee and Deputy Assistant Attorney General. “Corporations aren’t people and simply don’t deserve the same rights as people; we have to work together to put people before corporations.”
Activists striving for democracy in the United States have formed a fledging democracy movement that holds that large business corporations are the most powerful institutions in our society and the main obstacles to rule by the people, or democracy. As David Cobb, an attorney and director of POCLAD, said, “The movement we are launching is a long-term effort to make the U.S. Constitution more democratic. We are a diverse coalition with deep roots in communities nationwide. We recognize that amending the Constitution to restore the power of the people over corporations will not be easy, but we know correcting the Supreme Court is imperative to the progress of our nation.”
An organization called Move to Amend (MTA), a project of the Campaign to Legalize Democracy, sprang to life.
"Activists striving for democracy in the United States have formed a fledging democracy movement that holds that large business corporations are the most powerful institutions in our society and the main obstacles to rule by the people, or democracy."
The MTA steering committee is made up of activists for democracy, for changing the power balance between corporations and the people. The committee contains representatives from, among other organization, POCLAD, Center for Media and Democracy, Independent Progressive Politics, Women’s Insternational League for Peace & Freedom, Alliance for Democracy, After Downing Street and ReclaimDemocracy.org.
The orginal “call to action” on a constitutional amendment was made by prominent activists and intellectuals on the Left, such as Howard Zinn, Thom Hartmann, Bill McKibben, Medea Benjamin, Bill Fletcher, Jim Hightower and Tom Hayden.
The MTA steering committee’s first action was to begin circulating a petition called “We Move to Amend” that reads as follows:
We, the People of the United States of America, reject the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United, and move to amend our Constitution to:
- Firmly establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.
- Guarantee the right to vote and to participate, and to have our votes and participation count.
- Protect local communities, their economies, and democracies against illegitimate "preemption" actions by global, national, and state governments.”
The call to action says, “Today, with its ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are persons, entitled by the U.S. Constitution to buy elections and run our government.” The call to action asserts that corporations aren’t people but legal fictions. . . . In a democracy, the people rule.”
Public Citizen is circulating a Free Speech for People Amendment petition that calls for (1), passing the Fair Elections Now Act, which would give congressional candidates a public financing alternative to elections financed by corporations and repair the presidential public financing system, and (2), ensuring shareholder accountability, giving shareholders a say over corporate spending on elections.
Move to Amend says corporations have “gone after our tax dollars. Our services. Our jobs. Our schools. Our military. Our votes. Our future. Our freedoms. And the federal courts have helped them every step of the way.”
It’s up to the people to reverse those steps.
Linda Greene is an activist and writer in Bloomington, Ind. She can be reached at .