A few more thoughts on Democracy Day

March 1, 2018
Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef

In our January column, we wrote about the history of Democracy Day in Cleveland Heights. Since we were writing for the Heights Observer, we kept our focus local. However, Robert Shwab’s letter to the editor in response to that column, published in the February issue, takes a national view. That letter contained some misconceptions, which several readers have asked us to address.

Cleveland Heights Move to Amend is part of a national non-partisan movement calling for a constitutional amendment stating “that only human beings, not corporations, are legal persons with Constitutional rights, and that money is not the equivalent of speech.”

The legal concept of “corporate personhood” dates back to the 19th century, but it gained national momentum after the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission ruling by the Supreme Court.

Shortly before the 2008 presidential primary, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) prevented the nonprofit organization Citizens United from airing a film critical of candidate Hillary Clinton. Mr. Shwab stated that Clinton’s supporters sought to “stop the film and/or punish the producers.” In fact, the FEC’s action was solely in response to the timing of the film’s airing. The McCain-Feingold Act of 2002 (also known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act or BCRA) barred corporations (for-profit and non-profit) and unions from broadcasting election-related communication within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election. Citizens United was simply too late. However, it sued the federal government and, in 2009, the case reached the Supreme Court.

On Jan. 21, 2010, the Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Citizens United. The majority held that it was unconstitutional to prohibit a corporation from paying for “electioneering communication” under the provisions of the BCRA, and further defined campaign contributions as a form of speech. To prohibit a corporation from contributing to or airing a campaign film therefore violated its freedom of speech under the First Amendment. Justice John Paul Stevens’ dissent was vigorous: “Corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings. . . . But they are not in themselves members of We the People by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.”

Critics of the decision are by no means all “left-wing ideologues.”

Dale Robertson, a founder of the Tea Party, stated, “Corporations are not like people. Corporations exist forever, people don’t. Our founding fathers never wanted them, these behemoth organizations that never die. . . . It puts the people at a tremendous disadvantage.”

And Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) described the ruling as “the most misguided, naïve, uninformed, egregious decision of the United States Supreme Court in the 21st century.”

Abolishing corporate personhood would not abolish freedom of speech on behalf of corporations. Greg Coleridge of Move to Amend points out, “There is nothing in the We the People Amendment that prevents any individual connected to a corporation or union from using their individual constitutional rights to oppose threats against corporate property or interests. But it’s individuals who have the rights, not corporations.”

We agree with Mr. Shwab that “campaign finance laws have been ineffective, and have actually driven money away from political parties and toward billionaires.” Why? Existing laws before and since Citizens United have never challenged the money equals free speech constitutional doctrine that dates to the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision.

The website www.opensecrets.org demonstrates the results of that folly with these figures from the 2016 election:                                              

    Average winner spent: $1,495,633 (House of Representatives); $12,159,217 (Senate)
    Average loser spent: $354,116 (House); $5,796,020 (Senate)

Corporations and billionaires hire entire legal teams to defend their positions in our political system; we hardly think they need Robert Shwab to champion their claims as well. Our democracy, however, needs all of us to fight for real constitutional rights for individuals, and for the ability to regulate spending on elections.

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On Jan. 25, Cleveland Heights City Council hosted Democracy Day 2018, which about 50 people attended. Testimony offered by 20 individuals addressed the widely ranging ways in which corporate constitutional rights and big money in politics negatively impact our democracy and the daily lives of Cleveland Heights citizens. For all of the details, go to the city’s website, www.clevelandheights.com, click on the City Hall tab, then Government, then Agendas and Minutes, and scroll down to Public Hearings 2018.

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