Citizens United: People Strike Back

April 16, 2010
Riki Ott & David Cobb

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, which opened political campaigns to unlimited contributions from corporations, the American people are demanding everything from legislative fixes to constitutional amendments to defend the integrity of our democracy.

In Citizens United, the high court cited two earlier rulings—that money is speech, and that corporations are “persons” entitled to constitutional rights—to produce a third ruling that further usurps rule by the people.

The attempts to combat Citizens United vary from modest legislation to prohibit the worst interpretations of the decision from becoming law to calls to amend the United States Constitution. Some believe a constitutional amendment should abolish corporate rights to political free speech, while others are building a movement behind an amendment that would abolish all corporate constitutional rights.

Pending Legislation

On the legislative front, some states—including Iowa, Maryland, Ohio, and West Virginia—have introduced bills to compel public disclosure of all corporate and union political disbursements, require a majority vote of shareholders or union members for political campaign expenditures, or ban “pay to play” corruption (preventing state contractors from making campaign contributions on behalf of state political candidates or their campaigns). In other words, the legislative fixes are designed to make the impact of the decision a little less bad—without challenging the illegitimate premise that corporations are sovereign and entitled to human rights.

Similarly, federal legislation has been introduced in both houses of Congress to reduce the impact of Citizens United by creating hurdles to corporations “investing” in—or opposing—political candidates. These include proposals to prohibit political contributions or investments from foreign corporations, as well as to seek prior shareholder approval before corporations dip into their treasuries to spend money on campaigns.

But legislative fixes will not reverse the court's decision. They can only address elements the court left undefined.

Some states have taken a stronger approach by targeting efforts to abolish corporate political free speech rights. For example, Alaska introduced bills in the House and Senate to prohibit for-profit corporations and limited liability companies from being considered persons for the purposes of elections, initiatives, referendums, or recalls. Significantly, by including citizens’ initiatives, these bills push back against an earlier U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Boston v. Bellotti, 1978) that gave corporations the right to unlimited speech (i.e. to spend unlimited money) in efforts to overturn grassroots initiatives.

Senator Hollis French, a candidate for governor, is a sponsor of the Senate bill. In a press release, he called on other states to pass similar legislation in order to “strengthen a future challenge to the Court’s decision that corporations are ‘persons’ under election financing laws.”

Washington State is considering a joint resolution asking Congress to initiate amending the U.S. Constitution “so that corporations will not be considered as persons for the purposes of electioneering communications or direct contributions to candidates for public office.”

Citizen Movements

Several public organizations, including Free Speech for People, Public Citizen, and People for the American Way, are also working to abolish the rights of corporate persons to use political speech to influence elections, candidate selections, and policy decisions. A nationwide coalition of grassroots, community-based civil rights and social justice groups have come together under the banner of the Campaign to Legalize Democracy, which is rapidly building a popular movement to achieve genuine self-governance: rule by the people as promised in America’s founding documents.

The campaign advocates a series of amendments to the U.S. Constitution:

  • to affirm that only human beings are entitled to constitutional protections (thus abolishing all claims by non-living entities to constitutional rights);
  • to establish that money is not speech;
  • to protect local communities, their economies, and democracies against illegitimate "preemption" actions by global, national, and state governments. 

These amendments address the fundamental issue raised in Citizens United: Who rules? Is it the nation's citizens, as our founders intended? Or is it concentrated capital (corporate “persons”) wielding human rights such as “free speech” (including money) to elect politicians and judges to do their bidding? Hundreds of democratically enacted local, state, and federal laws that attempt to protect our elections, safety, health, environment, and our right to organize have been overturned by corporations wielding such illegitimate power.

In the three months since Citizens United was decided, the strongest response to the sovereignty question has come from "we the people." As envisioned by our founders, the people are the ultimate defense of our democratic republic and human rights. It is heartening to see such a diverse and rapid response to the very real threat that Citizens United poses to government of, for, and by the people.

Riki Ott and David Cobb
Riki Ott and David Cobb wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Riki is director of Ultimate Civics; she shares her story of evolution from marine scientist to democracy activist in Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. David Cobb is a principal with the Program on Corporations, Law, and Democracy and a member of the steering committee of Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County; he was the 2004 Green Party nominee for President of the United States. Riki and David are national spokespersons for the Campaign to Legalize Democracy.

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