Thursday, December 08, 2011

The Problem with an "Anti-Corporate Personhood" Amendment

Across the country, one of the rallying cries of the “Occupy” Movement has been the demand to eliminate “Corporate Personhood,” a concept that was cemented into law by a US Supreme Court decision commonly called the “Citizens United” decision [Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 08-205 (2010), 558 U.S. ––––, 130 S.Ct. 876 (2010)) The decision in essence, permitted corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money in political campaigns as an expression of First Amendment Speech rights. Since that decision, various groups and initiatives have arisen in an effort to overturn it and remove this Constitutional right from applying to Corporations. Unfortunately, in their passion to end corporate domination of US politics, it appears that some of these proposals may end up causing even greater potential harm to our society. A sober reflection on the issue suggests that a blanket “anti-Corporate-Personhood” amendment may not be the wisest route...and that better alternatives exist.

The effort to limit corporate control of the electoral process began in earnest with the McCain-Feingold Act, otherwise known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, which was adopted on March 27 of that year. The Act limited corporate contributions to campaigns, and prohibited the airing of corporate-sponsored political advertising in the weeks immediately preceding an election.

In an early test of that Act, Citizens United – a conservative advocacy group – challenged the right of the media to show the documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which was highly critical of the Bush Administration, during the 2004 campaign. When the Federal Elections Commission held that showing this film was not prohibited by the Act, Citizens United then geared up for its own documentary. In the 2008 campaign, it promoted it's film titled, "Hillary: The Movie," which was critical of then-Senator Hillary Clinton, to DirecTV Satellite subscribers. With some troublesome reasoning, the Federal Election Commission and subsequent courts ruled against this movie, and the case reached the U S Supreme Court.

In 2010, a highly fractured U S Supreme Court ruled in a landmark decision in favor of Citizens United, striking several sections of the McCain-Feingold Act as Unconstitutional. It was a decision that was (and remains) highly controversial.

The Court held that the First Amendment Freedom of Speech prohibits government from censoring political broadcasts in elections when those broadcasts are funded by corporations or unions.

The Court decided by a slim 5-4 majority, but even the five Justices in the majority wrote three separate opinions. Justices largely seen as conservative (Alito, Roberts, Scalia, and Thomas) were joined by moderate/swing vote Justice Kennedy in the decision. The Courts liberal block (Breyer, Ginsberg, Sotomayor, and Stevens) opposed the decision.

The dissenting opinion was stinging in its criticism of the majority. In it, Justice Stevens argued that the Court's ruling

"…threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution…”

and argued that by addressing issues not raised not even raised in the court pleadings by Citizens United, the majority

"changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law…The Court's opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.”

The case raised eyebrows in many circles: The American Civil Liberties Union, normally identified with “liberals,” actually filed a brief with the Court in support of Citizens United because of the over-riding free speech issue. After the decision, it was discovered that Justice Thomas’ wife was the founder and president of Liberty Central, a conservative political advocacy group whose operations were directly affected by the decision, bringing into question both his ethical and legal right to participate in the decision.

In the wake of the decision, a number of proposals have been suggested to overturn it, or to find alternative mechanisms to limit corporate contributions in elections. Some groups have arisen - with growing public support – promoting a Constitutional Amendment that would declare that Corporations are not “persons,” and therefore not entitled to Constitutional Protections. One such group, “Move to Amend,” has proposed an Amendment, that reads in part:

“The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons only.

Artificial entities, such as corporations, limited liability companies, and other entities, established by the laws of any State, the United States, or any foreign state shall have no rights under this Constitution and are subject to regulation by the People, through Federal, State, or local law.”

While well-intentioned, I think this is a classic case of attempting to kill a gnat with a sledgehammer."

There are many rights guaranteed in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights in addition to Speech. The above amendment – which is growing in popularity and being promoted in towns and cities across the country – strips corporate entities of all Constitutional protections. Consider the following Constitutional Rights that could be affected:

Amendment I: Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of …the press.

Amendment III: No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Article IV: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

These are all Constitutional rights currently enjoyed by all residents of our nation, including non-citizens and corporations. Amendments similar to the one proposed would eliminate these Constitutional rights for corporations.

Do we really want to live in a country where the corporate media – our magazines, television stations, radio reports, and internet providers – are NOT protected from Government censorship?

Do we really want a country where the military – which has already vastly expanded its domestic jurisdiction through the Patriot Act – can be stationed in your workplace against the will of that company?

Do we really want warrantless searches of our office desks, file cabinets, computer servers and systems, and office spaces by the local police, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms?

What about rights to Due Process? Equal Protection of the Laws? How about the Constitutional clause that prohibits Eminent Domain without proper compensation? Do wwe really want to say that businesses dont have these protections?

For over 200 years, a broad array of Constitutional Rights have protected the American people from intrusive government actions at home and at work. It is understandable that citizens want to reverse Citizens United; but the complete removal of all rights enjoyed by companies is a ‘cure” worse than the disease itself.

Reasonable limits (or prohibitions) on corporate contributions can be achieved through amendments that are far more ‘precise’ and less draconian than this. Professors Lucian Bebchuk at Harvard Law School and Richard Squire at Columbia Law School have proposed that legislation could be adopted, consistent with the Citizens United decision, giving shareholders (rather than Corporate Executives) the right to determine if or how corporate money could be spent in political activities. Since this could be done through simple legislation, it would be far easier than a Constitutional Amendment. Others have called for an simple Amendment that would declare that money is not speech, thereby empowering states and the federal government to re-implement McCain-Feingold or similar statutes.

These would both be easier and more effective restraints on the Citizens United decision, and avoid the danger of an greater erosion of American citizen’s Constitutional Rights.



Anonymous said...

Unconstitutional campaign laws are prior restraints on flesh and blood citizen’s rights to participate and create “State approved” “corporate” presses.

Amendment 1
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Only Congress can violate the 1st Amendment. Freedom of assembly, speech and press are the tools of political campaigns and existing campaign laws abridge all three.

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 media and created a State approved 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;

If the United States Supreme Court defined freedom of religion using the same logic that campaign laws use to define a free press only the church or synagogue "as an institution" would enjoy freedom of religion, not its parishioners!

The NRA bought a radio station to get around existing campaign laws. But flesh and blood citizens who share views on candidates and issues should not have to buy a media outlet to enjoy their 1st Amendment rights of assembly, speech and press. People should be free to assemble their money and talents to make their voices heard and offset the voices of billionaires and corporations.

We cannot rely on the commercial press to be unbiased and provide the information we need to remain free. Both Republicans and Democrats agree the press is biased and only differ on which networks and newspapers lack balance.

A newspaper must at all times antagonize the selfish interests of that very class which furnishes the larger part of a newspaper's income... The press in this country is dominated by the wealthy few...that it cannot be depended upon to give the great mass of the people that correct information concerning political, economical and social subjects which it is necessary that the mass of people Shall have in order that they the best way to protect themselves from the brutal force and chicanery of the ruling and employing classes. (E.W. Scripps).

To restore equal protection under law, the “press exemption”, 2 USC 431 (9) (B) (i), should be modified to read: “The term expenditure does not include any news story, commentary, or editorial distributed by any candidate, political party, citizen, citizens group, non-profit corporation, broadcasting station, newspaper, magazine, or other periodical publication.”

Haggis McBrylcreem said...

Personally, I'd prefer to abolish corporate law in its entirety and start over. Barring that, we need to abolish corporate personhood and enumerate the rights of corporations from scratch. There is no reason whatsoever why the right of a citizen ought automatically to apply also to corporations. I find your arguments, particularly re the First Amendment, extremely odd in both intent and substance. Frankly, I believe a corporation must be held to a higher standard of conduct and higher scrutiny than individual citizens; we've watched for centuries what corporations get up to when left to their own devices, and it's never good news. But you're right, of course, to try your damnedest to forestall the inevitable landslide of military billeting in our nation's workplaces, should corporate personhood be overturned.

gildone84 said...

The problem with your argument is you assume corporations always had the same rights as people. They didn't until the beginning of a string of Supreme Court decisions beginning in the 1800s and going up through Citizen's United. The Founders never envisioned corporations as people. They knew all too well the power corporations can have when they get in bed with government. The Boston Tea Party wasn't just a general tax revolt. It was a revolt against was a rigged tax system that the British monarchy gave to its crown corporations. All that is being done here is re-setting the constitution in this instance to its original intent.