Local activists fight controversial Supreme Court decision
Published March 16, 2011 in Real Change (Vol. 18 No. 11)
In a 5 to 4 decision that flouted legal precedents and campaign finance legislation, the Supreme Court, in Citizens United v. F.E.C., last year ruled that corporations can spend unlimited money toward political advertising.
What happens to democracy when corporations have the same rights as people, including the right to influence elections?
On March 10, the University of Washington hosted the forum “After Citizens United: What Now?” Enrique Cerna of KCTS 9 Public Television moderated the discussion, sponsored by Washington Public Campaigns.
Lynne Dodson of the AFL-CIO said Citizens United is part of the same “rapacious pursuit of profit” that caused the current recession. She said the ruling enables corporations to back candidates who support offshoring, deregulation, and fewer labor rights.
Several speakers emphasized that the issue extends beyond corporate free speech rights in the context of elections. Jeff Clements, general counsel of Free Speech for People, said the fundamental question is corporate power, including whether corporations should be treated as legal persons. He called for a constitutional amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling and establish that corporations are not people.
Amending the Constitution won’t be easy, the speakers agreed. A proposed amendment must be approved by three-fourths of state legislatures or by ratifying conventions in three-fourths of states.
Free Speech for People Director John Bonifaz pointed out that “overwhelming majorities” across the political spectrum would support such an amendment. According to a recent poll by Hart Research Associates, this includes 68 percent of Republicans, 82 percent of Independents, and 87 percent of Democrats.
Advocates worry about transparency in the short term. Steve Breaux, a WashPIRG public-interest advocate, urged support for the DISCLOSE Act. The bill, which passed the House but was blocked in the Senate, would require organizations involved in political campaigning to disclose the identities of large donors. In Washington State, a similar bill (SB 5021) is scheduled for a public hearing at 8 a.m. on March 16.
To challenge Citizens United, people can attend hearings and town halls, contact senators and representatives, write op-eds and letters to the editor, and form grassroots groups, said Claudia Kauffman of the Minority Executive Directors Coalition of King County. Temple De Hirsch Sinai’s Rabbi Alan Cook encouraged people of faith to get their congregations involved in the effort.
Bonifaz told of the late Doris “Granny D” Haddock, who turned 90 while walking across the United States to advocate campaign finance reform. For 14 months, she walked 10 miles per day through wind, ice, rain and snow until she reached the Capitol.
“When she was born, the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote had yet to be enacted,” Bonifaz said. “In the name of Granny D, it is time for us to stand up and fight … to ensure that ‘we the people,’ not ‘we the corporations,’ govern in America."