In the 2010 US Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the judges of the highest court in the land narrowly ruled that corporations were “people” with First Amendment free speech rights. The corollary of this judgment is that corporations, as “persons,” have the right to contribute unlimited funds to political campaigns as an exercise of their free speech.
On the one-year anniversary of the landmark decision, a survey conducted by Hart Research found that only 22 percent of American voters were even familiar with the Citizens United case. However, the same study showed that nearly four in five (79 percent) of Americans were in favor of passing an amendment to overturn the decision and clarify that corporations should not have the same rights as people.
Accordingly, numerous groups have pushed for action in response to the case – and some have met with recent success, particularly at the local level. One such organization, the national Move to Amend campaign, has approached the issue by mobilizing grassroots activism and calling for an amendment to the US Constitution to establish that only human beings, not corporations, are entitled to constitutional rights, and that the First Amendment does not protect unlimited political spending as free speech.
The organization states that its first priority this year is to help organize communities aiming to pass local resolutions.
On August 16, the City Council of Boulder, Colorado, voted to place a referendum on this year's November ballot calling for the US Constitution to be amended to reflect that corporations are not people and money does not equal speech.
However, according to the leading proponent of the measure, Carolyn Bninski, it was an uphill battle with the city council. “City council was divided from the start; some said it wasn't a 'local' issue, so we didn't have any business putting it out there for voters to decide – basically they called it a waste of time,” Bninski said.
Additionally, Bninski cited opposition from council members on grounds that the language of the resolution was too vague and may harm nonprofits and other organizations that are also protected under the umbrella term “corporation.”
Bninski is a leading volunteer of the committee that is organizing the Issue 2H campaign, and says that the issue is about more than just getting people to pass a referendum in Boulder. “This isn't just about Boulder overturning the decision made in the Citizens United case,” she said. “It's about educating people and getting them involved in our political process to reclaim our democracy.”
Even if the measure passes this fall, however, the success would only be symbolic. An amendment to the US Constitution requires a two-thirds supermajority in both the House and Senate and ratification by three-quarters of state Legislatures. Another route to amending the Constitution would be to call for a Convention of the US Legislature by two-thirds of the state Legislatures, followed by ratification of the amendment by three-quarters of the states.
Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, a member of the Move to Amend Executive Committee, pointed out the substantial power of a symbolic document such as a local resolution. “The Declaration of Independence was also once just a symbolic document,” she said. “But it was the foundation of this country, and it sparked a revolution.”
Not every community has faced the difficulties that Boulder has in proposing similar ballot measures.
Cynthia Wolken, a member of city council in Missoula, Montana, was the driving force behind presenting a resolution to her fellow council members. Wolken put forward a resolution in August, after voicing concern about the influence of money in Montana's politics and the use of political action committees (PACs) to control elections.
“[City council] could have just passed a resolution stating that Missoula does not recognize corporations as human beings at a meeting without calling for the issue to go to the ballot, but the public would likely not even be aware of it,” Wolken said “I wanted to use the opportunity to educate people and show unity in our community that Missoula supports amending the US Constitution.”
Missoula's referendum on this November's ballot comes at a time when Montana's corporate finance laws are at a crossroads.
Wednesday, September 21, the Montana Supreme Court heard oral arguments from “friends of the court” in order to decide whether to toss out the state's century-old state ban on direct corporate spending for or against the candidates.
The main conservative lobbying group challenging the law, the American Tradition Partnership (ATP), has deemed the ban “unconstitutional,” since the 2010 Citizens United ruling states that the federal government could not ban political spending in elections by corporations, and federal law trumps state law.
Montana's Supreme Court justices were skeptical of keeping the state law in place because it conflicted with federal law, but also voiced concern about the plaintiff's own evasive political activities, including ATP's lawsuit against state laws that require groups to disclose how they spend their campaign contributions.
Montana has a history of corruption in politics. The “Copper Kings” were the copper mining industry special interests that exercised undue influence in the state's electoral politics in the late 1890s and early 1900s. In response, the state passed the Montana Corrupt Practices Act of 1912 to limit corporate power.
Montana is one of 24 states in the country to have state laws regarding campaign finance limits. The state's ban does not exclude PACs from the election process, however, and corporations can still funnel influence into campaigns through this route.
A spokesman for the Montana Supreme Court said that the date the court would reach a decision was unclear at this time.
The Montana Attorney General's office did not return calls for comment.
“This case is just the tip of the iceberg,” Wolken said. “There will be a lot of lawsuits filed against other states with such campaign finance laws.”