Corporations Are Not People

Election Day is right around the corner, but many voters in Massachusetts are unaware that their ballot will include a question about amending the U.S. Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court’s discredited decision in Citizens United v. F.E.C.

The question asks voters whether they support a constitutional amendment that would affirm that 1) corporations do not have the same constitutional rights as human beings and 2) that Congress and the states may limit political contributions and expenditures. Because this is a non-binding public policy question, it does not appear in the excellent Voter Guide published by Secretary Galvin and can be numbered 4, 5, 6 or 7 depending on the community.

The Citizens United decision overturned decades-old laws restricting corporate political expenditures, including one passed in Massachusetts in the 1920s, ruling that they violated the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. The decision dramatically expanded the “corporate rights” doctrine and has unleashed a flood of money into federal, state, and local elections.

In the wake of the decision, campaign spending by outside groups, such as SuperPACs, has skyrocketed. In the 2008 election, two years prior to the decision, outside groups spent nearly $300 million. In 2012 they have already spent $800 million and are expected to spend over $1 billion.

All this money is corrupting our political system, as lawmakers seek support from well-financed special interests who expect something in return. To make matters worse, even when laws somehow make it through the morass of money, Citizens United and other recent decisions have systematically struck them down as violations of corporate constitutional rights. Laws such as those restricting cigarette advertising near schools, requiring the disclosure of Bovine Growth Hormone in milk products, or allowing random inspections of meat packing facilities have all fallen to this new corporate rights doctrine.

The Court’s claim that the Bill of Rights applies to “we the transnational corporations” as well as “we the people” is contrary to its original intent and just plain wrong. The framers of the Constitution were well aware of the dangers of wealthy interests taking over our government. They chartered only a few corporations and severely restricted their operation to a term of years and strictly circumscribed their activities. The idea of corporations having constitutional rights would have been shocking to them. And it should be shocking to us too.

Some may worry that reversing the doctrine of corporate constitutional rights could endanger free speech for organizations like the NAACP or the Tea Party. Such concerns are unfounded. After all, corporate constitutional rights are a new legal concept. Prior to the 1970s, corporations and organizations like NAACP were held NOT to have Constitutional rights. Yet no newspapers were shut down and organizations were not subject to discriminatory governmental whims. That’s because, as the Supreme Court ruled during that period, members of organizations, not the organizations themselves, have constitutional rights that can be enforced.

To its great credit, the Massachusetts State Legislature has recognized the need for a constitutional amendment to address these issues and nearly unanimously passed a resolution calling on Congress to enact one during the last legislative session. State legislatures in California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont have also voiced their state’s support. Cities and towns across the nation have also joined the call. In Massachusetts, the governing bodies of 73 municipalities have voted in favor of a constitutional amendment including Boston, Springfield and Worcester. In Colorado and Montana, voters statewide will be considering the question in November.

All this activity, especially a strong vote of the people in November, and more is necessary if we are to muster the political momentum needed to amend the U.S. Constitution, This is no easy task, but the Supreme Court has left us no choice. Only with a constitutional amendment can we address the problem of big money in politics and corporate personhood that the Court has created. The very foundation of our democracy is at stake as is the health and safety of all Americans.

-Pam Wilmot, Executive Director, Common Cause Massachusetts


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