Monday, June 6, 2011

Free Speech for Real People

Published in Z Magazine Vol. 24, No. 6 (June 2011)

What happens to democracy when corporations are legal persons with the right to free speech? And what happens when free speech is equated with the unchecked flow of cash? In a 5 to 4 decision that flouted legal precedents and campaign finance legislation, the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC last year ruled that corporations have the constitutional right to spend unlimited money toward political advertising. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or Republican,” said Seattle-based MoveOn activist Patricia Daly, “Citizens United is turning over...our democracy in favor of corporations.” Daly is one of many people across the nation taking action to challenge the ruling, push for greater transparency, and promote clean elections.

The only way to overturn a Supreme Court decision is through a constitutional amendment. This is precisely what many democracy advocates are calling for. Amending the Constitution is not easy. A proposed amendment must be approved by three-fourths of state legislatures or by ratifying conventions in three-fourths of states. However, there is widespread bipartisan support for an amendment to overturn Citizens United. According to a recent poll by Hart Research Associates, this includes 68 percent of Republicans, 82 percent of Independents, and 87 percent of Democrats.

David Cobb, the 2004 Green Party presidential candidate, now travels the country galvanizing that support through “Move to Amend.” He points out that state legislatures from California to Vermont have introduced bills calling for a constitutional amendment protecting the free speech rights of people, not corporations. “This is really about a broad democratizing movement,” said Cobb. “Legal and electoral systems have been hijacked by ruling elites.”

In the shorter term, advocates want greater transparency. While the 2010 mid-term election saw unprecedented campaign spending, the public has remained in the dark about the full extent and sources of that spending. Further, many corporate interest groups hide behind civic-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Works, and Citizens United. Requiring campaigns to disclose the identities of donors helps voters make informed choices.

Steve Breaux, a WashPIRG public-interest advocate, urges support for the DISCLOSE Act. The bill, which passed the House, but was blocked in the Senate, would require organizations involved in political campaigns to reveal the identities of major donors.

Like other states, Washington has introduced a bill to shed light on money in politics that has passed the State Senate and now has to clear the House. In 2010, California passed similar legislation, requiring disclosure for political messages that appeal to voters to approve or reject a candidate or measure, even if the ad doesn’t use the “vote for” or “vote against.”

Another way states are promoting clean elections is by providing candidates with a public alternative to corporate campaign financing. Publicly-funded campaigns have worked in seven states: Maine, Arizona, North Carolina, New Mexico, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts. However, clean elections face a tough fight, since their popularity and effectiveness has drawn the ire of corporate interest groups. Legislation in Massachusetts was later repealed and Vermont’s was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, which is now ruling on the constitutionality of Arizona’s Clean Elections Act, which levels the playing field by using public funds to match the corporate funding of another candidate.

At the federal level, the Fair Elections Now Act (FENA) calls for public funding of Senate campaigns. The bipartisan bill would allow federal candidates to run for office without relying on large private donations, freeing candidates from the pressures of constant fundraising.

Building the momentum for these efforts requires public education and consciousness-raising, according to John Bonifaz of Free Speech for People. Although voters overwhelmingly agree that corporations wield too much political influence, few have even heard of Citizens United. Hart Research Associates found that only 22 percent of voters were aware of the decision. Some groups are informing the public through teach-ins and forums. Others are taking a more dramatic approach.

Americans are demanding an end to the cynical politicking that has tainted our democracy for far too long. They don’t want to see their elected officials up for sale. In these challenging times, it is essential that our leaders focus on creating jobs, getting our economy back on track, fixing our broken health care system, stopping multiple wars, and addressing ongoing environmental degradation. Putting democracy into the hands of the electorate can help ensure that our lawmakers put these pressing issues, and the wellbeing of the people, first.

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