VERMONT VOX POPULI: Human Rights for Human Beings, Not Corporations - An Interview with Move To Amend’s David Cobb
By Rob Williams, Vermont Commons
In January, David Cobb of MoveToAmend.org toured Vermont to educate community leaders and Vermont legislators about why corporations should not have the same inalienable rights as humans. MovetoAmend.org’s mission is to push for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to make it clear that corporations are not humans and should not have human rights.
Cobb’s trip was sponsored by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and a grant from Ben & Jerry’s. Two of the people who organized his visit – progressive activists Cheryl Diersch and Robin Lloyd – are also on the Vermont Commons Editorial Board (Vermont Commons: Voices of Independence, makes no journalistic claim to objectivity on this or any other issue).
The educational meetings during Cobb’s visit were promoted by leaders from several Vermont organizations, including Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, Rural Vermont, Vermont Commons, the Big Picture Theatre, the Bethany Church, Transition Town Montpelier, and the League of Women Voters. His visit coincided with the introduction of a resolution into the Vermont Senate, by Chittenden County State Sen. Virginia Lyons, which calls for a vote to amend the U.S. Constitution specifically to overturn the judicial precedent that corporations have the same inalienable constitutional rights as people. The Vermont resolution, the first of its kind in the U.S. on this issue, proposes "an amendment to the United States Constitution . . . which provides that corporations are not persons under the laws of the United States."
Parts of this interview were conducted at the Vermont State House after an informational presentation that David gave to Vermont legislators, which followed a press conference by Sen. Lyons. The resolution, when introduced on Tuesday, January 18, had already been signed by 12 of Vermont’s 30 state senators and has as a co-sponsor the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Richard Sears. Lyons is optimistic that the resolution will pass.
David Cobb was born in Houston, Texas, and grew up in poverty in a shrimping village on the Gulf of Mexico. A 1993 graduate of Houston Law School, Cobb ran for Texas Attorney General in 2002, pledging to use the office to revoke the chargers of corporations that break the law. As the Green Party nominee for president in 2004, Cobb’s campaign initiated and funded the vote recount in Ohio that uncovered voter fraud in that presidential election. He now lives in Humboldt, California. Motivated in part by his childhood experience, Cobb serves with local and national organizations that promote social, environmental, and economic justice.
Tell me your impressions of Vermont and our context here. What’re your impressions after spending a few days here?
David Cobb: Well at the risk of sounding sycophantic, I gotta tell you I am more than impressed by Vermont and the engaged citizenry of this state. I have been traveling the country for the last several years trying to help spark a movement to make the promise of democracy a reality. Because for us, corporate personhood or corporate constitutional rights is at the very core of the question: who rules in this country? Because we know that unelected and unaccountable corporate CEOs are not merely exercising power, they are ruling us. As surely as masters once ruled their slaves or kings once ruled their subjects, these unelected and unaccountable corporate CEOs have hijacked our government; they’ve hijacked our media institutions; they’ve hijacked our healthcare institutions; they are making the decisions about what food we are allowed to eat and what kind of health care we get. We’ve lost control of our country.
And what I’ve found as I traveled Vermont is that engaged citizens not only know that this is a big problem, but they are actually fighting back. Many Vermonters are willing to fight back as part of a larger movement to amend the U.S. Constitution. But equally exciting is the fact that Vermonters are also creating alternatives to the current corporate model. This state is replete with examples of community supported agriculture, sustainable building and energy practices, and ordinary citizens working together with their neighbors to actually get their needs met outside of the corporate system. But you know, it’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and. Yes we need to create alternatives, and we also need to amend the U.S. Constitution. So my impressions of Vermont: ya’ll are getting things done here.
I’d like to clarify a point for people who maybe don’t understand what Citizens United is about, or who might be unclear what corporate personhood means. Is the move to amend about campaign finance, or a company’s ability to speak to their positions and lobby, etc? The amendment question seems to be very specific about whether inalienable constitutional rights that belong to humans should also apply to corporate entities that are not actually humans.
D.C.: The fundamental thing we’re talking about is this: the U.S. Constitution makes it clear that no part of the government can infringe upon the individual civil liberties of any of its citizens. And I as a civil libertarian support that principle and fight like hell anytime there are local, state, or federal laws that actually do infringe upon the rights on the people. There are many examples where that has happened. I believe that the USA PATRIOT Act for example is unconstitutional, on its face. I certainly know for a fact that the Jim Crow segregation laws that were passed at the state level were unconstitutional because they violated the rights of African-American citizens.
The point is this: I am not anti-corporation; I believe corporations should exist and should be allowed to engage in commerce. But I do not believe that corporations can ever legitimately walk into court and claim that they have some sort of inherent inalienable constitutional rights that have been violated by a local, state, or federal action. Because these artificial entities don’t have inherent rights, only people do. Any rights that a corporation has must come from the democratic process. Corporations have legal rights, yes, but those are not inalienable inherent rights of natural law as recognized by the Constitution.
So corporate legal rights would be determined by things like contract law and their corporate charters, but corporate rights would not be the same inalienable rights that people have under the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. Corporate rights are up to local, state, and federal law to determine by the democratic process.
D.C.: That’s exactly right. Yes, you’ve just nailed it. Corporations’ rights can be described by their state or individual charter any bylaws; their rights can be described by virtue of election codes or other state laws. And business people can rely on those rights. But what corporations cannot claim is that these rights are inalienable under the U.S. Constitution.
And let me be clear about something. There has never been a case where a local merchant has walked into the U.S. Supreme Court and spent the millions of dollars it takes to try to overturn a law. The only business entities that have ever engaged in this process are the huge transnational corporations. This is why I constantly make a distinction between local businesses and independent businesses that are doing good work in their communities, and the huge transnational corporations. They are not the same.
If corporations continue to have constitutional human rights, including the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, does this mean that a town or state cannot make laws that regulate trans-national companies, unless the laws also regulate the small local companies the same way?
D.C.: No. I encourage local communities to exercise their inherent right to sovereignty and to pass those laws that are needed to protect themselves. Although corporate lawyers may argue that such efforts violate a corporation's alleged constitutional rights, it is our position that the doctrine which purports to grant corporate "rights" is illegitimate.
If Vermont hits the wall on this issue and no amendment vote is called for by Congress, what other recourse does the state have? Is this not also a states’ rights question?
D.C.: Vermont can do what they did during the days of slavery, which is to refuse to comply with illegitimate federal courts interference. Remember, the courts can only overturn local, state or federal laws if such a law violates the inalienable human rights of a person. And a corporation is not a person.
Do you think that overturning corporate citizenship would make it easier for states to “re-localize” their economies to create better jobs, because local governments would have the ability to regulate local commerce in ways that prioritized local business and local production?
D.C.: Absolutely! And to be explicit, it is our position at Move To Amend that Vermont – as well as your local communities – already have the right to regulate commerce. Our constitutional amendment would merely recognize that right, which the Supreme Court has illegitimately claimed to have taken away.
Some of the people I’ve talked to about this, particularly those who fall on the right side of the political spectrum, see the move to amend as an assault on rights of association where groups of people come together as an association or corporation to speak their mind. It’s an important distinction to make that overturning corporate citizenship does not necessarily mean that corporations will lose any free-speech rights. Overturning corporate citizenship would only mean that corporate rights are not inalienable, meaning that local, state and federal laws and the democratic process would determine the rules which corporations must follow.
D.C.: Correct, and I think it’s worth pointing out that there are talking points that say any effort on the part of the people to fight back against corporate abuses must be anti-business by definition. And I simply disagree with that. That framework is incorrect. I will tell you this. We have Tea Party adherents participating with us at MoveToAmend.org. We have Libertarians participating with us. The issue of corporations claiming constitutional rights cuts across ideology and party labels. Principled progressives and principled conservatives and independents all can agree on the idea that we the people are sovereign and that corporations are merely business entities; that corporations are useful entities to use capital and labor to get things done. And we support that. But corporations should never be able to claim constitutional rights.
You mentioned that you’re seeing grassroots support from people across the political spectrum. But I’ve also heard you talk about the corporate-sponsored corruption that rules both main political parties at the national level. How does the grassroots dialogue transcend right/left divisions, given that the leaders of the mainstream right/left dialogue are controlled by corporate interests?
D.C.: We are encouraging people to only support candidates who will take an unambiguous stand opposing the doctrine of corporate constitutional rights and who will support a constitutional amendment to that effect. We also encourage people to run for office themselves. And that means in the corporate-controlled parties and also as independents and members/supporters of alternative political parties. The success of the Progressive Party in Vermont is an example of the strength of grassroots organizing.
What do you think of the fact that the main organizers and sponsors of your trip to Vermont included groups focused on peace and justice, agriculture, sustainability, peak oil and transition, socially responsible business, Vermont political independence (a.k.a. secession), along with Ben and Jerry’s?
D.C.: Folks engaged in efforts for peace, justice, sustainability, and socially responsible commerce understand very well that corporate constitutional rights are a barrier to creating the world we want and deserve. We are proud that they are collaborating with us on this fundamental question, which is simple: Who Rules? Is it "We the People" or transnational corporations?
If Vermont passes this resolution, what else would have to happen to actually get a popular vote to amend the Constitution?
D.C.: The same things that happened during every great movement in this country, from abolitionists to women's suffrage to trade unions to civil rights – a broad and deep grassroots movement of people demanding systemic change. And that is beginning to happen across the country!
What should people who support the move to amend do if they want to help?
D.C.: First, sign the motion at www.MoveToAmend.org and ask your friends and family to do so as well. Second, write a letter to the editor sharing your position with other community members. Third, call in to talk radio. This is an effective way to get the word out. Fourth, pass a resolution supporting a constitutional amendment (tips and examples are on our website). This can be done by a political party, your church, synagogue, or mosque, and local civic groups.
The bottom line is, we need to make it a viable political issue. During election season, go to candidate forums and ask "Do you support the opinion that corporations are persons and therefore have the rights of free speech under the First Amendment?" After the election, visit with your elected official and let your voice be heard. And be prepared to run for office yourself!
Well, thank you for coming to Vermont and helping us set this into motion. I think it’ll be interesting to see where this goes and how quickly.
D.C.: Well, how quickly is the question. I’ve had the privilege of reading the Vermont Commons publication and one thing that ya’ll seem to be aware of is that the current transnational corporate empire is failing. And we will be wise if we both dismantle this empire as it comes crumbling down and build up the alternative institutions to take its place at the same time. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. Peace.