The assertion by Mitt Romney during the Iowa straw poll that, “corporations are people too” seems at face to offer unlimited potential fodder for “The Daily Show.” The notion is ludicrous, but at root, it’s about as funny as the Dred Scott Decision.
That 1857 Supreme Court decision dealing with a question of personhood for slaves characterized blacks as “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Reversal of this denial of personhood to actual humans, required a civil war, the deaths of nearly 700,000 persons (none of them corporations) and ultimately passage of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. In an ironic twist, the equal protection assurances of the 14th Amendment designed to establish the legal rights of all persons (specifically freed slaves) were twisted through legal maneuverings to include corporations under the meaning of persons. Hundreds of corporate lawsuits during the late 19th and early 20th centuries chiseled expanded meanings to 14th Amendment concepts of “due process” and “equal protection” into shields for corporations against regulatory control by democratically elected governments. These radical interpretations defining corporations as persons under the law made possible the more radical Citizens United ruling of 2010.
The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision by the John Roberts Supreme Court dismantled federal and state election laws controlling campaign financing by equating the expenditure of money with constitutionally protected free speech; thus laws restricting unlimited expression of free speech (as money) were deemed violations of the due process and equal protection clauses under the 14th Amendment. The 5-4 majority decision then went far beyond reason to grant First Amendment freedom of speech rights to corporations as persons under the law, allowing unlimited money contributions to political causes directly from corporate treasuries. In a strong dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens in writing for the minority in Citizens argued that “corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their personhood often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of ‘We the People’ by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.” He was right. If corporations have free speech and money is speech, then we will all eventually be ruled not by laws and elected representatives but by those with the most money.
As a result of Citizens United, political contests were inundated in 2010 by waves of corporate dollars for slickly produced Madison Avenue propaganda that seduced us into electing a new but demonstrably radical majority (particularly here in Ohio) that promised jobs and delivered social engineering legislation. The corporate money poured in again in 2011, as Virginia- and Iowa-based Super PACs spent millions trying to defeat repeal of the ill-conceived union busting law (SB 5/Issue 2). Such corrupting influences were felt across the nation and at the local levels.
Increasingly, local and state governments and the boldest of our elected representatives have been standing against the very wrong-headed direction charted by Citizens United. Draft amendments have been proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and separately by Rep. Mark Udall of Colorado. The Montana Supreme Court has upheld the state election financing laws in defiance of the federal court’s Citizens findings.
Cities and towns across the country are passing resolutions against corporate personhood and for constitutional amendments to reverse the excesses of Citizens. So far, more than 40 cities, including such cities as Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York City, Boulder, Duluth and Pittsburgh have passed such resolutions. Similar resolutions are under consideration in dozens more. Resolutions have been introduced into Washington and Vermont state congresses to demand a constitutional amendment to eliminate corporate personhood. Additionally, the nearly singular cogent position of the growing “Occupy” movement is repeal of Citizens United via an amendment.
Sometimes even the Supreme Court makes errors. In Dred Scott they misidentified people as property. In Citizens United they misidentified property (corporations) as people.
Athens City Council should pass the Resolution in Support of Abolishing Corporate Constitutional Rights now before it. Join the growing ranks of state and local governments throughout the nation that are formally expressing their support for amendment of the U.S. Constitution to clarify forever that corporations do not and cannot enjoy the freedom of speech rights of natural persons, and that the use of corporate money to buy the political process is not a protected right of free speech.
It took a war and then an amendment to the Constitution to reverse Dred Scott. It will take a constitutional amendment to free us from the chains being forged on natural persons by Citizens United. Perhaps if we start with an amendment, it will allow us to avoid a war this time around.
Resolutions such as the one before Council are the very speech — the human speech — needed for our state and national representatives and the remainder of the country to hear this critically important message. This is how an amendment arises.
Join in Athens, join in!
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Robert Wiley is a local businessman based in Albany, a nationally practicing consulting ecologist and an emerging political observer.