The following was submitted by John Lippitt:
In response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, Reading Town Meeting will consider a resolution calling for a Constitutional amendment to allow the regulation of spending in elections. The resolution, which will be Article 18 on the Town Meeting Warrant, states that
- Free speech rights belong to people not corporations or other organizations, and
- Unlimited spending by corporations and others in our elections presents a real danger to our democracy because corporations and others with wealth can drown out the voices and interests of ordinary citizens.
- On Congress to pass an amendment to our Constitution to clearly establish that money is not the same as speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are entitled to constitutional rights such as free speech, and
- On our Legislature to pass Senate Bill 772, a resolution calling for such a Constitutional amendment.
The Supreme Court’s five-to-four decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in January 2010 was precedent-breaking, and hence precedent-setting. The court ruled that corporations and unions have the same rights to freedom of speech as are granted to U.S. citizens under the Bill of Rights. The court expanded on previous rulings that say that spending money is considered “speech”. It held, for the first time, that limiting corporate campaign spending would violate freedom of speech rights. This overturned the 1907 law banning corporate contributions signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “All contributions by corporations to any political committee or for any political purpose should be forbidden by law.”
With the 2012 election season underway, the consequences of the Citizens United decision are becoming clearer by the day. Some wealthy individuals and corporations are already spending huge amounts of money in political campaigns. Because the court did not overturn limits on contributions directly to candidates’ campaigns, the unlimited spending has to be done through separate organizations — typically “political action committees” or PACs. “Super PACs” (“super” because of their unlimited flow of money) have already spent $85 million in the presidential primaries according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Ninety percent of this money is coming from “probably fewer than 100 people,” estimates David Donnelly, national campaign director at the Public Action Campaign Fund, a group that supports limits on campaign spending. Moreover, the amount spent to date is a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars that these Super PACs have stated they will raise and spend during the entire 2012 election period.
By unleashing corporate funds, the Citizens United decision dramatically expands potential spending and, therefore, concerns that elected officials will be more responsive to contributors and their money than to constituents. The Open Secrets project at the Center for Responsive Politics calculated that even before Citizens United roughly 72% ($3.4 billion) of all campaign contributions in 2007 – 2010 came from the business sector (individuals and organizations), with labor contributing 4% ($172 million), ideological groups 7% ($308 million), and others 17%. Now, we can expect even greater business sector dominance.
Citizens all across the country are concerned that unlimited campaign spending by corporations and wealthy individuals will mean that our elections won’t be a fair fight. If, as the Citizens United decision asserts, money equals speech, then those with no money have no voice. This flies in the face of the principles of our democracy and the Constitution that our founders wrote.
Hundreds of communities across the United States, including Boston, Los Angeles, and New York City, have passed resolutions asking Congress for a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Fifteen cities or towns in Massachusetts have passed such resolutions and another 17, including Reading, will consider them at Town Meetings this spring. Fifty-five Vermont towns passed resolutions on March 6, 2012. Three state legislatures (California, Hawaii, and New Mexico) have passed resolutions and a number of other state legislatures are considering them. In Massachusetts, such a resolution (Senate Bill 772, “Free Speech for People,”) has been filed for consideration in the Legislature with our local State Senator, Katherine Clark, as one of the co-sponsors.
In addition to citizens taking action, over 200 groups have formed a loose coalition working to overturn Citizens United, including Move to Amend, Common Cause, the National Lawyers Guild, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and Veterans for Peace. Some courts have also taken action. The Montana Supreme Court upheld the state’s 1912 law limiting corporate spending in campaigns, despite a lower court ruling that Citizens United had invalidated the law in question. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals similarly upheld a New York City law that places limits on political contributions.
The outsized influence corporations already wielded in our democracy before the Citizens United decision, through lobbying, limited campaign spending, and other avenues, was of great concern and impact. Now, with unlimited corporate campaign spending unleashed, government of, by, and for the people is truly at risk.