America is at a crossroads. Shall we be governed by people or by corporations?
If you thought we had already answered that question more than two centuries ago, you're right. The framers of our Constitution were clear that we were to be a government of, for and by the people. They recognized that corporations were not people and that the Constitution did not guarantee corporations rights intended for people.
Yet five justices of the current U.S. Supreme Court think otherwise. In their January, 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC decision, they ruled that corporations have the same free speech rights as people and can spend unlimited amounts of their corporate money in our elections. No matter that corporations are artificial entities created through state corporate charter laws. No matter that corporations do not breathe, do not think and do not have consciences. No matter that corporations have advantages you and I do not: limited liability, perpetual life and the ability to aggregate and distribute wealth. According to these five justices, corporations are people.
This was not the first time the Supreme Court ruled this way. For the past 30 years, corporate America has worked to create a fabricated corporate rights doctrine under the First Amendment that has eroded free speech principles and undermined our self-government. While the notion of "corporate personhood" dates back to an 1886 ruling of the court, it is through this modern-day fabrication that we now face the threat of unchecked corporate power subverting our democracy. The Citizens United ruling is the most extreme extension of this corporate rights doctrine, allowing corporations to invade our elections and effectively control their outcomes.
But we can fight back. Article V of the Constitution sets forth the process by which the people can enact a constitutional amendment. We have done this before—27 times in our nation's history and 17 times since the original Bill of Rights. And seven of those amendments overturned egregious Supreme Court rulings.
We can, and must, do this again. We must fight for a 28th Amendment—a People's Rights amendment—to make clear that corporations are not people, and that people, not corporations, govern.
Recent polling we conducted with Peter Hart and Hart Research Associates confirms that this idea has broad support. Overwhelming majorities of Americans, whatever their ideologies, oppose the Citizens United ruling and support a constitutional amendment to overturn it. A constitutional amendment is supported by 85 percent of independents, 87 percent of Democrats and even 68 percent of Republicans.
As dangerous as the Citizens United ruling is, it also presents us with a historic opportunity to build a trans-partisan movement that can unite America.
If you think this isn't possible, consider Doris Haddock. Otherwise known as "Granny D," she decided, at 89, to walk across the country to overhaul our nation's campaign finance system. She set out from California, walking 10 miles a day. She had no grand plan as to how she would do it, where she would stay or what she would eat. But people nationwide housed her, fed her, walked with her for part of the way. Fourteen months and 3,200 miles later—turning 90 in the process—she reached Washington, D.C.
On March 9, 2010, Doris "Granny D" Haddock died at the age of 100. When she was born the Nineteenth Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote, had yet to be enacted. In her lifetime, Haddock saw nine amendments passed by the United States Congress and ratified by the states. In the name of Granny D, it is time to enact a 28th Amendment to the Constitution that restores democracy to the people.
John Bonifaz is co-founder and director of Free Speech For People (www.freespeechforpeople.org), a national nonpartisan campaign working to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling and the corporate rights doctrine.