Corporations, people, money, and speech

Just about everyone wants to overturn Citizens United. But it's not so simple

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Corporations corrupting the political system was a major concern of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY YAEL CHANOFF

tredmond@sfbg.com

On July 24, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors weighed in on a policy debate that's become a powerful cause on the American left. By a unanimous vote, the supervisors placed on the November ballot a measure calling for a Constitutional amendment to end corporate personhood.

"We're living in a time of trickle down economics and tax breaks for the rich," Avalos said, later adding, "Big corporations [are] able to spend vast amounts of money" and have "the greatest influence on the outcome of elections.

"We need to look at our Constitution and have it amended so we aren't looking at corporations as living, breathing people," Avalos said.

That's an immensely popular sentiment in this country, and it's been stirred up by the US Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a ruling that has come to represent all of the evils of big-money politics rolled into one two-word phrase.

More than 80 percent of Americans say they want the decision overturned. Six states, including California, have passed resolutions calling for a Constitutional amendment. Occupy protesters have made it a big issue. Marge Baker, policy vice president for People for the American Way, wrote a Huffington Post piece calling the campaign "A Movement Moment."

But while Citizens United is a great rallying point, the challenge here goes way beyond one court decision. Citizens United didn't create corporate personhood. Repealing the decision won't end the flow of money in politics — and a lot of First Amendment experts are exceptionally nervous about anything that seeks to mess with this central part of the Bill of Rights.

And for all the denunciation of Citizens United, the solution — drafting the actual language of a new Constitutional amendment — turns out to be more than a little tricky.

MICHAEL MOORE AND HILARY CLINTON

Citizens United v. FEC has a complicated history. In 2002, Congress passed the McCain-Feingold Act, which barred corporations and unions from funding "electioneering" activities in the period right before an election.

The right-wing group Citizens United complained that Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 911 was an attack on George W. Bush and intended to influence the 2004 election, and the courts dismissed that complaint, saying that there was no evidence the independent documentary was an illegal campaign contribution.

Citizens United then started making its own "documentaries," including one in 2008 that many saw as a campaign commercial against Hillary Clinton. The FEC found that the video was, in fact, "electioneering," and the case wound up at the Supreme Court.

The legal decision was complicated, but among other things, the court ruled that a ban on independent corporate spending on election campaigns was a violation of the First Amendment rights of those business entities.

That was amplified when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney uttered his famous line, "corporations are people."

But in reality, Citizens United alone hasn't caused the tsunami of big money that's poured into elections, including the 2012 campaigns. Much of the cash contaminating the presidential coffers this year comes not from corporations effected by the ruling but from individuals and private trusts that have been free to throw money around for decades.

"The flood of money is disgusting and corrupting," Peter Scheer, director of the California First Amendment Coalition, told us. "But it isn't coming from public corporations. It's mostly wealthy people and private trusts, and they didn't need Citizens United to do this."