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.