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Real People v. Corporate “People”: The Fight Is On

The Supreme Court says corporations can spend as much money as they want on political advertising. Millions of Americans say they've had it.
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In 2009, Riki Ott was on the road for 252 days educating people about the dangers of “corporate personhood.” That’s the legal doctrine that says corporations have constitutional rights, just like human beings. She mostly spoke in academic settings, and there was some interest in the idea, says Ott, but not much.

All that changed on January 21, 2010, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Now interest has skyrocketed, and Ott finds people eager to volunteer, to organize, to meet, to do anything to reverse the Court’s decision.

Rallying Around Citizens United

Supreme Court cases are usually interesting to lawyers, scholars, and those directly affected. Occasionally, a decision makes the news for a few days before disappearing from the public eye. But sometimes there’s a game changer—a decision that is so clearly wrong that it becomes a rallying point. David Cobb, former Green Party presidential candidate and longtime activist on corporate personhood, points to Dred Scott v. Sandford as one such decision. Citizens United, Cobb says, is shaping up as another.

The two cases are mirror images of error. In 1857, the Dred Scott decision said that a flesh-and-blood human being had no constitutional rights because he was black. On January 21, 2010, the Court, in a 5-4 decision, used Citizens United to declare that corporations—legal entities with no human attributes—have the same constitutional free-speech rights that humans have.

Dred Scott was the most notorious Supreme Court decision of its time. It was not a groundbreaking case—it simply took existing law to its logical conclusion. But it so clearly violated both logic and human decency that it forced people to look at what slavery really meant. Rather than legitimizing the status quo, as it was intended to do, the decision galvanized the growing abolitionist movement, and set the stage for the end of slavery. But it took the 14th Amendment to overturn Dred Scott.

To say that a corporation with billions to spend on advertising is no different from a human being with one voice and one vote goes beyond what people are willing to accept.

Citizens United also takes existing law to its logical conclusion. And, like Dred Scott, it is generating tremendous discussion and debate—this time about corporate power and about what role, if any, corporations should play in the political process.

An ABC News/Washington Post poll taken February 4–8, 2010, found that 80 percent of Americans oppose the Court’s ruling, including 65 percent who “strongly” oppose it. Opposition cuts across the political spectrum: 85 percent of Democrats oppose the ruling, as do 81 percent of Independents, and 76 percent of Republicans.

Within days of the Citizens United decision, groups formed to undo the Court’s damage. They are pursuing remedies ranging from local ordinances to federal legislation to a constitutional amendment.

Why Should We Care

Citizens United says that corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising. The Court declared more than 30 years ago that spending money is a form of speech, and that corporations had a First Amendment right to speak that way. But there were still limits, particularly in the area of political speech, where there is a century-old tradition of controlling the influence of corporations on the electoral process.

Marquee Photo by David Gans

Allen Michaan, owner of the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, Calif., routinely exercises his free speech, in this case by sharing his reaction to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The well-known marquee faces the MacArthur Freeway (I-580).

Photo by David Gans

Citizens United takes away those limits. According to the Court, if human beings are allowed an unrestricted right to free speech, then corporations must have the same right.

The Court overturned a key provision of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform law that prohibited corporate- and union-funded campaign advertising within 90 days of a federal election. Now, corporations can spend unlimited money influencing our elections right up to Election Day.

More than $5 billion was spent on the 2008 campaigns with the McCain-Feingold law in place. If that seems like a lot of money, wait for the next election cycle. Citizens United was a case about a corporation spending money to advertise and air a movie that amounted to a hit piece on Hilary Clinton. There are now no limits on the funding of that sort of negative campaign material. Any candidate who doesn’t toe the corporate line can look forward to a flood of opposition cash.

The Humanity of Corporations

Just as Dred Scott was only an extension of existing law, Citizens United merely extends law that has been developing for a long time. But, like Dred Scott, the Court’s conclusion makes clear to most people that the law is wrong. To say that a corporation with billions to spend on advertising is no different from a human being with one voice and one vote goes beyond what a large majority of Americans are willing to accept.

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