Magazine article The Progressive

Corporations Aren't Persons: Amend the Constitution

Magazine article The Progressive

Corporations Aren't Persons: Amend the Constitution

Article excerpt


ON FEBRUARY 16, ABOUT 200 people gathered on the steps of the Wisconsin state capitol. "It's fitting that we stand out in the cold," said Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. "That's where the Supreme Court has left us."

He was referring to the court's recent decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which granted corporations the right to spend unlimited funds on so-called independent expenditures to influence the outcome of elections. The crowd heartily agreed with McCabe. Signs said: "No Corporate Takeover of Elections," "Free Speech, Not Fee Speech," "Money Is Not Speech, Corporations Are Not Persons." And a chant went up: "Overrule the Court."

Ben Manski, executive director of the Liberty Tree Foundation, drew the crowd in with a historical analogy.

"Susan B. Anthony, the great suffragist and abolitionist, was born" on February 15, 1820, he said. "Were she alive now, she would be here, celebrating with us, marching to overrule the Court. On a future day, a multitude will gather on these same steps and look back at what we here dare to do, and they will thank you."

What the crowd was daring to do was nothing less than kick off a nationwide grassroots campaign to amend the Constitution not only to overturn the court's reckless decision but also to state, once and for all, that corporations do not have the same rights as persons.

Make no mistake about it: The court's ruling in Citizens United, if left to stand, will destroy whatever hope we may ever have had of democracy in this country. It will entrench corporate power as never before. And the promise of America will be dashed.

Fighting Bob La Follette, the great Senator from Wisconsin and the founder of this magazine, warned throughout his career about the looming threat posed by corporate power. When he ran for President in 1924, he said: "Democracy cannot live side by side with the control of government by private monopoly. We must choose, on the one hand, between representative government, with its guarantee of peace, liberty, and economic freedom and prosperity for all the people, and on the other, war, tyranny, and the impoverishment of the many for the enrichment of the favored few."

Yes, we must choose.

And we must choose now.

To read the 5-4 majority decision in Citizens United is to took at a fun-house mirror. The case, most narrowly, concerned whether the rightwing nonprofit group Citizens United, which is partially funded by corporations, could run an anti-Hillary Clinton documentary on cable and whether it could promote the film with ads on TV close to election time. The McCain-Feingold law prohibited corporate-funded independent ads during such a timeframe, and Citizens United challenged the constitutionality of the law as it applied to this particular instance.

But the Court's majority was not interested in ruling narrowly. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, threw out decades of Supreme Court precedents. Writing in the most sweeping way, he declared that "political speech of corporations or other associations" cannot "be treated differently under the First Amendment simply because such associations are not 'natural persons.'"

The logic of the Court's argument would throw out all restrictions on corporate expenditures. "Political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it, whether by design or inadvertence," it said. This seems to justify unlimited direct gifts to candidates, though the majority didn't quite go there. But it went everywhere else.

The decision asserted, astonishingly and without evidence, that "independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption." It added: "The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy." And it asserted that "no sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech of nonprofit or for-profit corporations. …

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