Between the Lines: Real Citizens Unite

State and local governments take on the Super PACs

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Thursday, May 31, 2012

"The First Amendment to the United States Constitution was designed to protect the free speech rights of people, not corporations," begins a bill pending in the Massachusetts Statehouse.

In the not-too-distant past, one would not have expected there to be the need for such a clarification. Then came the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision—a.k.a., the "corporations are people" ruling—that found that the government could not restrict political contributions from corporations and unions, on First Amendment grounds.

Fast-forward two years and the effects of that ruling are impossible to miss: according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, spending by Super PACs in the current election cycle hit a whopping $100 million earlier this month—with six months to go until Election Day. "A single super PAC, the pro-Mitt Romney Restore Our Future, has already spent more—$44.5 million—than all outside groups combined had spent by this point in 2008," the group reports.

The Massachusetts bill is a non-binding resolution in support of a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would, in the words of the state bill, "restore the First Amendment and fair elections to the people." The bill charges that, over the past 30 years, "a divided United States Supreme Court has transformed the First Amendment into a powerful tool for corporations seeking to evade and invalidate democratically-enacted reforms" and says the Citizens United ruling "presents a serious and direct threat to our democracy."

The bill was filed by state Sen. James Eldridge, a Democrat from Acton, and counts among it sponsors, from Western Mass., state Sen. Stan Rosenberg (D-Amherst) and Reps. Smitty Pignatelli (D-Lenox), Peter Kocot (D-Northampton), Ben Downing (D-Pittsfield) and Denise Andrews (D-Orange). It's now before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, which held a hearing on the bill in February but has yet to release its report.

In January, U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat from what is, for now, Massachusetts' 3rd Congressional District, filed the "People's Rights Amendment," which would repeal the Citizens United ruling. (A number of other lawmakers, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent, have filed similar bills.)

"Corporations are not people," McGovern said in announcing his bill. "They do not breathe. They do not have children. They do not die in war. They are artificial entities which we the people create and, as such, we govern them, not the other way around." McGovern called the Citizens United ruling "the most extreme extension of a corporate rights doctrine which has eroded our First Amendment and our Constitution."

Due to recent redistricting changes, McGovern, of Worcester, will represent a number of Valley communities, including Northampton, Amherst and Greenfield, starting next January, in a newly configured 2nd Congressional District. (That's assuming, of course, that he wins re-election—and right now, he faces no challengers.)

Last month, U.S. Rep. Richie Neal stated his support of the amendment, after months of pressure from the group Progressive Democrats of America. No doubt Neal was also inspired by the fact that, in September, he'll face two challengers in a Democratic primary for what will be the new 1st District—and both of those challengers, Andrea Nuciforo and Bill Shein, have already voiced their support for the proposed amendment. (Shein, in a nod to the absurd effects of the Citizens United ruling, calls his campaign committee "Human People for Shein.")

Legislatures in four states, including Vermont and Rhode Island, have already passed resolutions calling for the repeal of Citizens United. The Democracy Amendment Coalition of Massachusetts, which includes the groups Public Citizen, Common Cause and MassVOTE, hopes to see the commonwealth join that list.

At least count, the coalition reports, 56 municipal governments had already signaled their support through local votes. Those communities include Amherst, Ashfield, Buckland, Colrain, Conway, Cummington, Deerfield, Great Barrington, Leverett, Lanesborough, Montague, Northampton, Otis, Pelham, Rowe, Sheffield, Shelburne, Shutesbury, Warren, Warwick and Williamstown. More communities are scheduled to vote on resolutions in the coming weeks.

Organizers of the effort say this bottom-up approach, with towns and cities sending a message to federal lawmakers, will be key to its success. "Towns and cities from every part of Massachusetts have embraced a simple, powerful proposition: People, not corporations, shall govern in America," John Bonifaz of Free Speech for People said in a statement. "Like past campaigns for constitutional amendments, this movement will succeed because the American people, at the grassroots level, are standing up to defend their democracy."

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Oh goody, another meaningless, non-binding statement of pique. Won't everybody feel super-cool telling the Supreme Court what's what?

Let me propose a hypothetical: let's say that Exxon purchases the Newspapers of New England and proceeds to set the editorial policy of a certain weekly paper. Let's say that this particular newsweekly starts to publish articles and editorials that are monolithicly and unswavering in support of one particular politicial persuasion. (Crazy, I know!) That's OK, right? And it's fine for unions to use millions of dollars to support their interests but corporations are not allowed to utter a peep in protest? That's great stuff.

Posted by Nat Hentoff on 5.30.12 at 18:58



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