Corporations are not people, and money is not free speech. That was the sentiment of a non-binding resolution passed by the East Providence City Council on Oct. 16. Moved by Councilwoman Katie Kleyla, it supported an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would reverse the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision “Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission.” That decision overturned campaign finance restrictions. It allowed corporations to spend unlimited, anonymous amounts of money on independent political advocacy, because this spending was considered by the Court to be free speech, and corporations, as “people,” hold this constitutional right.
Some folks around town questioned why this so-called “Move to Amend” resolution was City business. Christopher Gagnon of Riverside explained why on Oct. 2, when he asked the Council to consider the resolution. He argued that the unprecedented sums of money that were poured into the election, especially at the State and local (ballot question) levels, “have had an unintended consequence: the selling of our democracy. What chance does the average Rhode Islander have to have their voice heard when they must compete with billionaires and multinational corporations? If money equals speech, those with the most money have the most say.”
Mr. Gagnon’s presentation certainly convinced most members of the City Council and most of the citizens present at the City Council meeting that the Supreme Court ruling has had pernicious effects and should be rejected. But how can a Supreme Court ruling be overturned? There are only two methods: either the Supreme Court reverses its own decision by making a countervening decision on a later case, or the States and Congress can overturn a Supreme Court decision by amending the Constitution.
The “Move to Amend” movement is a citizen initiative, therefore the constitutional amendment is the only method available to them for overturning the Citizens United ruling. Two-thirds of all state legislatures (or two-thirds of both houses of Congress) must agree to propose a constitutional amendment, and the proposed amendment must then be ratified by three-quarters of all state legislatures.
The reason why it was important for the City Council to vote on this resolution is therefore clear: a constitutional amendment, absent a reversal by the Supreme Court, can only be proposed if it has a wide base of popular support throughout the country. In his presentation, Mr. Gagnon mentioned the fact that across the nation, hundreds of cities and several states, including Rhode Island, have already passed resolutions to amend the constitution accordingly. It should be noted that in the national election held on November 6, similar resolutions were approved by citizens in over 100 other cities from Massachusetts to Oregon, Colorado to Wisconsin, Ohio to California.
For example, in Eau Claire, Wisc., 71 percent of voters supported a similar measure. In Pueblo, Colo., where the local newspaper had come out against the measure, 65% still voted in favor of the same resolution that the City of East Providence approved. In districts of Massachusetts where the question was on the ballot, 79% approved it. Montana voters approved a state-wide resolution by 75%. In addition to Montana, the following states have by now expressed support for the amendment: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhodes Island, and Vermont.
The results show that there is overwhelming bipartisan support for abolishing corporate personhood. As a spokesperson for “Move to Amend” put it: “Americans are fed up with large corporations wielding undue influence over our elections and our legal system.”
— By Ullie Emigh & Christopher Gagnon
Mr. Emigh and Mr. Gagnon are both Riverside residents.