ARCATA – “I am a patriotic and angry American,” said David Cobb, starting off Saturday’s meeting at Eighth Street’s Greenway Partners. His anger comes in part from a Jan. 21 ruling by the Supreme Court which removed restrictions on corporate spending during national elections. He isn’t alone, a recent Washington Post/ABC Poll found eight out of 10 people polled shared his displeasure.
Democracy Unlimited Humboldt County (DUHC) called the meeting in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling. The organization fears that lifting corporations’ restrictions gives corporations excessive power at the cost of citizens. Former 2004 presidential candidate and DUHC Campaign Director Cobb spoke with passion to a group of citizens ranging in age from college students to seniors about the need for change.
The Supreme Court case in question is Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, which was prompted by a movie critical of then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton titled Hillary: The Movie. Citizens United (CU), a conservative leaning, non-profit organization challenged a federal court ruling in a D.C. court that restricted the organization’s ability to broadcast the movie right before the 2008 primaries. The D.C. court made its ruling based on campaign finance reform commonly known at the “McCain-Feingold” law. Passed in 2002, McCain-Feingold restricted political speech funded by corporations to combat the growth of unregulated “soft money” in elections.
The court discussed parts of the bill that regulated television and radio ads running immediately before national elections. The bill limits ads on broadcast channels, cable and satellite 60 days before a national election, or 30 days before a primary.
The court’s ruling in Citizens United v. FEC not only means McCain-Feingold is effectively overturned, it will undermine state and local laws established to regulate the funding of elections. Cobb stated the ruling amounts to legalizing corporate bribery. For Cobb and Democracy Unlimited, it is a question of limiting the free speech rights of corporations. However, Theodore Olson, attorney for CU, argued before the Supreme Court that the question of free speech should be based on its content, and not its source.
“The inherent worth of speech in terms of its capacity for informing the public does not depend upon the identity of the source whether corporation, association, union or individual,” Olson argued before the court.
CU was supported in its argument by the American Civil Liberties Union in an Amicus Brief filed with the court. The brief stated that political speech needs the maximum protection available under the constitution, and supported free speech over regulating corporate influence in elections.
“Promoting equality as a compelling interest over freedom will result in more and more severe restrictions on freedom in chasing the rainbow of equality,” the brief read.
Cobb disagrees. He supports limiting the speech of corporations because their size and wealth give them an unfair advantage, which he believes compromises democracy.
“The most dangerous threat to democracy in America is the mistaken belief we have one,” Cobb said. “When corporations can legally claim the rights of a person, democracy is illegal.”
Cobb explained that a corporate interest could approach a candidate or office holder and threaten to spend a substantial amount of money against them if they didn’t take a position favorable to them, or support a vote favorable to them. He argued very few politicians would have the courage to stand up to a threat of this nature.
Saturday’s meeting set forth four goals to correct this imbalance in power perceived by Democracy Unlimited.
The first goal is to create a constitutional amendment with language that would end what is commonly known as corporate personhood.
Secondly, it would clarify that money is not speech. Further goals include a guaranteed right to vote, and working to protect local communities from corporate influence.
The objective of Saturday’s meeting was not just to inform, but to provide direction to those who want to create change. The meeting alternated between small group discussions and presentations by Cobb and Director Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap.
Mary Hurley attended Saturday’s meeting because she wants to take action. She works for United Indian Health Services and has lived in Humboldt County for the last 30 years. She plans on working to get resolutions passed at the county and state level to limit corporate personhood, and she wants to learn more about how she can inform her friends about the issue.
Saturday’s meeting discussed ideas to inform the public, such as playing a giant game of Monopoly on the Arcata Plaza to dramatize corporate control. A pledge was proposed for candidates to sign, stating they would not take corporate money and to make limiting corporate power a part of their platform. Outreach ideas included using new media models like YouTube and Facebook to spread the message.
Hurley explained that in her opinion, democracy isn’t working for the majority of citizens, and that all three branches are being used to advance the interests of the elite at the cost of the average citizen. She doesn’t think change is going to come easily.
“I’m hopeful there can be change,” she said. “But it isn’t going to happen unless we get together and demand it.”
Hurley supports the move to amend the constitution, citing a history of amendments being used to protect the rights of citizens. Examples of these amendments are the 14th Amendment, which granted African-Americans equality, and the 19th which gave women the right to vote. She also supports public financing of elections as a way to stop corruption.
Democracy Unlimited and the group of people gathered together on Saturday are just a small part of a large issue. On a website, movetoamend.org, a petition is available, and has been signed by nearly 65,000 people. It is also a movement that crosses the left-right boundary that defines much of today’s politics.
Cobb said the founder of TeaParty.org has objected to the court’s ruling and supports the move to amend the constitution. Though the constitution doesn’t grant citizenship rights to corporations, Cobb explained they have gained power through a number of Supreme Court cases. But corporate personhood isn’t a legal term.
“It is shorthand for the idea a corporation can claim inherent inalienable human rights,” he said.
He said he isn’t opposed to corporations having rights, his concern is to protect communities’ rights to make decisions.
This echoes the argument put before the court by Elena Kagan, attorney for the FEC.
“What this legislation is designed to do, because of its anti-corruption interest, is to make sure that lobbying is just persuasion and it’s not coercion,” Kagan argued to the court.
Kagan also argued the difference between an individual and a corporation.
“You know, an individual can be the wealthiest person in the world, but few of us are only our economic interests,” she stated. “Corporations have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders to increase value. That’s their single purpose, their goal.”
But Kagan explained it wasn’t just the general public that needed protected, she argued shareholders in corporations also faced risk.
“In a world in which most people own stock through mutual funds, in a world where people own stock through retirement plans in which they have to invest, they have no choice,” she said. “I think it is difficult for individual shareholders to be able to monitor what each company they own assets in is doing.”
Democracy Unlimited suggests corporate interests are inherently different than the general publics, and aside from making money for their shareholders, often at odds with their interests. How to prevent this disconnect from corrupting the electoral process was at the heart of McCain-Feingold, and is what groups like Democracy Unlimited are focused on addressing. However, Cobb acknowledges no amount of reform can take the place of an active citizenry. He thinks moving to amend the constitution will empower people.
“It will inspire people, because it will encourage people to imagine the world they want to live in,” he explained.