Taking a stand against Citizens United

Commentary

Olga Pedroza

We all know that corporations are not humans. We all know that human beings and corporations have different needs. Humans, for instance, need food, clothing, shelter, employment and education. Corporations need profits. Profits are good, but not those which come at the expense of vulnerable people.

We all know that our Constitution guarantees to all persons certain freedoms, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion. So, what we have to decide is whether a corporation should also be considered  a   “person” so that it can spend as much money (a form of speech) as it wants in a political campaign. It should be noted that we are not talking about ordinary corporations, but rather, the huge, multinational corporations that outsource jobs, cause suicides among workers in other countries and have kept us in wars for decades.

In January 2011 the Supreme Court, in a decision called “Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission” ruled that corporations are “speakers” (and therefore “persons”). Citizens United is a not-for-profit corporation which receives funds from for-profit corporations and sued the Federal Election Commission. Its claim was that it was an entity (a “person”) and therefore had the right to freedom of expression and the right to spend its money to elect or defeat candidates for office. Citizens United is wrong. Corporations  are not persons. They are not humans and that makes all the difference.

As one man stated, human beings die, do not enjoy economic advantages like limited liability, and have consciences. A business corporation [on the other hand] is an artificial, state-created entity with unlimited life, highly favorable techniques for acquiring, accumulating and retaining vast wealth through economic transactions …; and only one purpose—maximizing return on the shareholders’ investment, that is making money.

We also know that in a democracy the elected representatives in Congress and other governmental offices are the ones who make the rules. That is, voters only get to vote on election day and after that it’s up to the elected officials. Of course, after the election, people and groups try to influence the officials and try to persuade them to vote for rules they like, but who is elected is critical.

And here is the problem. The court in Citizens United ruled that Corporations are “speakers”, that is, that Corporations are “persons” and are thus entitled, anonymously, to spend whatever amounts they want to elect government officials.

They can spend any amount they want to choose the people who make the rules. They can finance campaigns. They can pay for television ads. They can look for candidates they like in any state, in any election. In Las Cruces, we had an out-of-state group offering to finance a city candidate in a recent election.

When a Labor Union wants to spend money on an election, it is required to give a member his money back if he or she does not want his money used for that particular candidate. With Citizens’ United, there is no such requirement for corporations. In fact, many corporations have made their profit from consumers who have no way to ask for their money back from the corporation if they do not like how the corporation is using its profits. Even their stockholders do not get to ask for their money back.

That is too much of a good thing for corporations. It is not fair to ordinary citizens, who may be struggling to make ends meet, to pit them against huge corporations (some of which have more money than independent nations in the world) in a contest to support one or another candidate. Who will make the rules and what interests will be enhanced? Not those of people who are struggling to provide food, clothing, shelter, and education for their families.

The interests that corporations have will be enhanced. And their interests are in making profits.

California lawmakers have introduced a resolution that calls on Congress to propose and send to the states for ratification a constitutional amendment to state that corporations do not have the same First Amendment rights as individuals. This is achievable, but will take time.

Several states and cities around the country have also spoken against the decision in Citizens United. The New York City Council has passed a similar resolution, as has Los Angeles, Oakland, Albany and Boulder. Montana has stated that it will follow its own law, not Citizens United.

In the meantime, it is important for cities, including Las Cruces, New Mexico, to address campaign finance reform. We need to set campaign contribution limits. We need to require more frequent reporting of campaign contributions and full disclosure of the names of individuals and organizations that contribute to a candidate. We need to fully discuss and consider public financing of elections. We need to follow our State Legislature’s example and take a stand against Citizens United. 

Olga Pedroza is a Las Cruces City Councilor (District 3) and has been a practicing attorney for 25 years.

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