Overturn Citizens United

Corporate personhood and money as speech are eroding democracy.
By
  • Daily Editorial Board
February 14, 2012

Two representatives in Wisconsin’s state Legislature recently introduced a resolution that calls on Congress to start the process of amending the constitution to end corporate personhood and the treatment of money as political speech. New Mexico and Hawaii have already passed similar resolutions. If Congress doesn’t act, two-thirds of the states can call for a constitutional convention under Article V of the Constitution, where amendments can be introduced.

Amending the Constitution to end the legal precedents of corporate personhood and money equaling political speech is more important than any other issue right now. It’s not an exaggeration to say our democracy is at stake. If Minnesota considers itself a progressive state, and if Minneapolis considers itself a progressive city, they need to take the lead on this issue. The Minneapolis City Council and Minnesota state Legislature can pass resolutions in support of a constitutional amendment to overturn these two dangerous precedents.

These resolutions are reactions to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which determined that since corporations are legally considered people protected by the First Amendment and because money also counts as speech protected by that amendment, limits on political contributions were unconstitutional. The decision has already had massively negative consequences for our political system, but neither the precedent of corporate personhood nor counting money as speech was set for the first time in Citizens United.

Corporations were first considered people protected by the 14th Amendment — designed to protect freed slaves — in the 1886 case Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific. But while corporations were given the same rights as people, they have none of the same responsibilities as people. They are protected by the legal concept of limited liability, and they can’t be killed or jailed. The most compelling argument against corporate personhood, though, is common sense. Corporations, by definition, are not human beings, and they should be treated differently.

The more damaging precedent is considering money to be political speech, set in the 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo. Money is market expression, but it is not democratic expression. This ruling treats our democracy as a supermarket and elections as shopping decisions.

In a democracy, all men and women are created equal and have equal power to rule themselves. Considering wealth as democratic expression makes citizens inherently unequal. Furthermore, it means that the power to make laws — having become dependent on wealth — can be inherited, a problem we fought the American Revolution to rid ourselves of.

Passing a constitutional amendment to overturn these precedents is not a left or right issue; it is about protecting our democracy, our Constitution and the values of our Revolution. Members of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street should be equally active on this issue, as should Americans of every other political stripe.

The road to a constitutional amendment might be a long one, especially if Congress fails to act soon. Cities and states passing resolutions can put pressure on Congress, and a constitutional convention can be called as a last resort.

There is significant grassroots support for an amendment: 84 percent of voters in Madison, Wis., supported a referendum to this effect in the most recent election. Money being treated as democratic speech and corporate personhood are eroding our democracy — ending them should be priority number one for everyone no matter where they are on the political spectrum.

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