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The Fight to End Corporate Personhood Heats Up

| Friday December 16th, 2011 | 5 Comments

It’s been nearly two years since an intensely divided Supreme Court solidified the idea of corporate personhood by ruling that political spending by corporations is protected as a form of free speech under the First Amendment. Since then, that landmark decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Committee has allowed for unrestricted and undisclosed campaign spending by corporations, a concept that we are just starting to see the effects of as the 2012 election draws near.

Since the Occupy Wall Street protests began in September, there has been a lot of attention on the potential for political corruption by powerful corporations and the subsequent gross imbalance of wealth and power it creates. Over the past few weeks, it looks like there is finally some momentum starting to build in efforts to overturn the landmark Citizens United case, cut the ties between corporations and the government, and put an end to the idea that Corporations should enjoy the same rights as people.

Even before Occupy Wall Street, when the ruling in the Citizens United was made, it was met with a lof of opposition. The Supreme Court was split 5-4 and the ruling Justices were bitterly divided on the decision. In the dissenting opinion written by Justice Stevens, the opposing Justices argued that allowing a flood of corporate money into the political marketplace would corrupt democracy. President Obama called it “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” And a poll conducted by the Washington Post shortly after the ruling found that Americans from both parties overwhelmingly opposed the decision.

Although Occupy Wall Street has been widely criticized for not having concrete demands, this issue is so clearly tied to the movement’s frustrations and objectives that it seems like an appropriate battle for the movement to take up and fight. Although the major protest camps in cities across the country have been shut down, the group’s home base has been moved inside to a small donated office space in Manhattan. Several Occupy groups staged protests at major ports in Los Angeles, Oakland and Portland on Monday which were successful in disrupting operations. The movement is at a turning point, and it seems obvious that the fight to overturn Citizens United would make a perfect strategic objective.

In Los Angeles two weeks ago, just days before being evicted by police, the General Assembly of Occupy LA passed a unanimous resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to end corporate personhood. A few days later, the Los Angeles City Council became the first major US city to unanimously endorse another resolution asking the United States Congress to amend the Constitution and establish that only living persons have constitutional rights. Lawmakers in Albany, NY voted unanimously on a similar resolution, and in November, voters in Missoula, Montana supported a referendum declaring that “corporations are not human beings.”

Then on December 8th, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders introduced the Saving American Democracy Amendment, which would overturn the Citizens United case and make clear that corporations are not entitled to the same rights as citizens. The amendment would also incorporate a ban on corporate campaign donations and establish the authority for Congress and the states to regulate election spending. The Sanders proposal is a companion measure to the OCCUPIED Constitutional Amendment that was introduced by Representative Ted Deutch of Florida in November. On Tuesday, Sanders announced on MSNBC that his online petition to get support for the amendment had reached 140,000 signatures in just five days.

In the video below, Chris Jansing gives a remarkable number that proves the importance of this action. The top four ad spenders in the Republican primary have already shelled out $12.5 million on ads, a figure she calls “staggering.” Two of the groups are Super PAC’s or Political Action Committees that can accept unlimited donations from corporations and do not have to disclose their donors. These groups would not exist had the Citizens United ruling gone the other way.

[Image credit: dopey, via Flickr]

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Kara Scharwath is a corporate social responsibility professional, marketing consultant and Sustainable Management MBA Candidate. She is currently working as a Graduate Associate in Corporate Citizenship at the Walt Disney Company while pursuing her degree at Presidio Graduate School. Follow her on Twitter @karameredith.


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  • BenDoubleCrossed

    Unrestricted and undisclosed campaign spending by corporations has been going on for years:

    “The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy; the growth of corporate power; and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.” -Alex Carey, Australian social scientist

    It is normal for all large businesses to make serious efforts to influence the news, to avoid embarrassing publicity, and to maximize sympathetic public opinion and government policies. Now they own most of the news media that they wish to influence. – Excerpt from The Media Monopoly by Ben H. Bagdikian

    Following reports of serious financial abuses in the 1972 Presidential campaign, Congress amended the FECA in 1974 to set limits on contributions by individuals, political parties and PACs. But politicians exempted the commercial press

    2 USC 431 (9) (B) (i) The term “expenditure” does not include any news story, commentary, or editorial distributed through the facilities of any broadcasting station, newspaper, magazine, or other periodical publication, unless such facilities are owned or controlled by any political party, political committee, or candidate;

    “Section 431(9)(B)(i) makes a distinction where there is no real difference: the media is extremely powerful by any measure, a “special interest” by any definition, and heavily engaged in the “issue advocacy” and “independent expenditure” realms of political persuasion that most editorial boards find so objectionable when anyone other than a media outlet engages in it. To illustrate the absurdity of this special exemption the media enjoys, I frequently cite as an example the fact that if the RNC bought NBC from GE the FEC would regulate the evening news and, under the McCain-Feingold “reform” bill, Tom Brokaw could not mention a candidate 60 days before an election. This is patently absurd.” – Senator McConnell

    Congress is hated, but members of Congress are constantly re-elected.

    That is because existing campaign laws are incumbent protection acts! Donation limits hurt challengers more than incumbents. Super Pacs could help level the playing field for challengers.

    When contributions are limited, one must raise more of them. That seems obvious, right? Incumbents solve this problem through access. Special interests line up to provide clusters of checks for the officeholder to keep his door open. But the challenger, with no real power, is left with a task equivalent to filling a swimming pool with a teaspoon. Who lines up to support the challenger?

    When contributions are publicly reported, checks to incumbents are risk-free. But supporting a challenger might close the officeholder’s door, or worse, put a group or industry on the schedule for political retribution.

  • Richard Lewis

    Every so called Campaign Finance Reform or proposed amendment shares one common goal….to restrict the speech and press rights of every “CITIZEN” except those employed as editors, reporters and talking heads!

    I ran for congress in 1994 as an independent and was accused of coordinating with a small 501c organization that independently endorsed me.

    The investigation lasted for almost four years and a reason to believe finding was made against my committee.

    Although I am not an attorney, I prepared a brief challenging the constitutionality of 2 USC 431 (9) (B) (i). This so called “press exemption” provides foreign newspapers and cable networks more freedom to influence U.S. elections than the small 501c organization that I was accused of coordinating with.

    After I was dismissed numerous attorneys told me that I had been dismissed because of the precedent that my complaint would have set and the public record that would have been available of that courts decision.

    Would any judge want to be responsible for deciding that foreign citizens or corporations are entitled to more freedom to influence U.S. elections than American Citizens, political parties and political organizations which are not exempt from federal election laws?

  • Fred Schwacke

    Corporations are not People. Please sign our petition and help put them in their proper place.

    http://signon.org/sign/corporations-are-not-3?source=s.fwd&r_by=166820

    To effect the changes needed to reclaim our democracy we need to defeat Corporate America’s attack on our freedoms, and the best place to start is by making sure corporations do not enjoy the rights of “natural people”; it is the key to all of the others. This is not a Conservative, Liberal, Libertarian, or Independent question; it is about preserving the America our forefathers fought so hard to create, and the legacy we have been entrusted to pass on to our kids.

    Put simply, if a few corporate power brokers own our politicians, and anonymous dollars are more powerful than votes, the great masses of Americans, including you and I, lose their right to “Government by and for the People”.

    To effect change, we all have to focus on this core issue. The unbelievable power and influence of big banks and other large corporations, their ownership of the majority of our news outlets, and the massive abuses some engage in, is that core. Together, we can counteract this financial power base with the power of our voices, and return control of our government to “real people”. Rather than continuing to allow both isles of Congress and the Supreme Court to legitimize the “power of the dollar”, together we can force them to re-focus on our rights as “natural people”. With this single step, everything else we need in order to regain the American dream becomes possible, and it all begins by passing a Constitutional Amendment that simply says “Corporations are not People”.

    So I created a petition to our House of Representatives & Senate, as well as President Obama, which says:

    “It is my belief that Corporations are not People, and that a Constitutional Amendment making that simple statement should be enacted.”

    Please step up and help protect our freedoms by signing the petition, and forwarding it to as many of your friends as you can. With your help we can all win!

    Please click here to add your name:
    http://signon.org/sign/corporations-are-not-3?source=s.fwd&r_by=166820

  • Chaplain Bob Walker

    I would love to see states have citizen initiative to ban this corps are people thing for bribing, I mean campaign contributions for politicians. It should be considered bribery and the board of directors should go to jail and should the so called “public officials” that benefit. The court was supremely disturbing to me. It seems to be a marriage of greed and corruption with a propensity to allow big business to buy votes over the welfare of the common folk.

  • David

    Corporations should not exist at all. People should be held individually responsible for their actions or that of their buisness.