LA City Council: Corporations aren’t people

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The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to support a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment that would abolish “corporate personhood” and assert that spending money on a political campaign is not a form of free speech. The largely symbolic measure comes in response to a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Decision, Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, which struck down key provisions of the McCain–Feingold Act including one that prohibited all corporations and unions from broadcasting “electioneering communications.”

“The flood of money since Citizens United is literally drowning out our voices,” said City Council President and 2013 mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti. “If we’re going to be moving forward in this country, we need less special interest money in the political process.”

In the Citizens United case, Supreme Court Justices ruled in a 5-4 decision that incorporated entities (from businesses to non-profit organizations) are guaranteed the same constitutional rights that have been extended to U.S. citizens through the Due Process Clause of the 14th amendment. This includes the right to support, with cash, electioneering efforts that aren’t directly coordinated with any particular campaign. Garcetti, the resolution’s sponsor, believes something has to be done to prevent corporations or other types of organizations from spending unlimited amounts of money to influence elections.

Campaign finance reform activist Mary Beth Fielder agrees. Fielder is the Co-Coordinator of LA Move to Amend – part of a national coalition seeking to end corporate personhood through city council and ballot initiative action. According to The Raw Story, Fielder says that a proposed amendment by Move to Amend would provide the basis for overturning the controversial ruling in the Citizens United case.

“The Supreme Court has no legitimate right to grant people’s rights to corporations. We must clearly establish that it is we, The People, who are meant to rule,” Fielder said.

But proponents of the Citizens United decision say that the Supreme Court is actually promulgating free political speech by empowering non-profits and small groups to have their voices heard. Campaign finance attorney Cleta Mitchell filed an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the plaintiffs in the Citizens United case. After the ruling, she wrote:

“The Supreme Court has correctly eliminated a constitutionally flawed system that allowed media corporations (e.g., The Washington Post Co.) to freely disseminate their opinions about candidates using corporate treasury funds, while denying that constitutional privilege to Susie’s Flower Shop Inc…. The real victims of the corporate expenditure ban have been nonprofit advocacy organizations across the political spectrum.”

Some have argued that Citizens United will actually work to transform the identity of the big, less shareholder-friendly corporations, which research has shown to be the biggest campaign spenders, and will not undermine the election system. Why, you ask? Because executives, who don’t want to create ideological rifts between themselves and shareholders, would be more open to sign onto transparency agreements about their company’s political spending.

Of course, big corporations don’t want to alienate voters/potential customers any more than their own shareholders. The Citizens United decision will lead to, in the words of University of California professor of law Eugene Volokh, “more messages from more sources.” This point is reinforced by what the Supreme Court upheld as still binding on all corporations, including disclosure requirements on political expenditures and a federal ban on direct campaign contributions from businesses and unions.

A constitutional amendment that would overturn Citizens United by allowing Congress and the states to regulate campaign financing has already been introduced by Senators Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) and Michael Bennet (D-Colorado). The proposed measure does not dictate specific policies or regulations, Udall said in an MSNBC interview. Incentives like these might help to win over support from Republicans who’ve blocked several legislative attempts to overturn the landmark decision, he said.