At this point in the campaign season, we’ve all heard the term “Citizens United” at least a bajillion or so times. “Citizens United led to superPACs … ” this and “Thanks to Citizens United … ” that. Such a pleasant little name for a truly insidious concept—that corporations have the same rights to free speech as you and me, even if said speech is expressed in millions of dollars of political advertising.
Hell, if you weren’t paying attantion, you’d think “Citizens United” was a good thing. If we’ve learned nothing else in the last year, united citizens are certainly capable of great things, whether said united citizenry be in Tunisia, Tahrir Square or skirting City Hall. Who’s against small-c citizens, small-u united?
But capital-C, capital-U Citizens United, the deep-pocketed political organization that produced the 2008 smear piece Hillary: The Movie (and whose forthcoming Spring 2012 Occupy Unmasked looks equally fair and balanced), is something else entirely. The organization, depending on your bent, is either a conservative travesty or, well, the place where you can order Mike Huckabee’s The Gift of Life on DVD.
The decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (shorthand: Citizens United decision), a 2010 Supreme Court case whose story began when the FEC ruled that Citizens United couldn’t air Hillary: The Movie within 30 days of the 2008 Democratic primaries.
On appeal, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United (it was a contentious 5-4 decision)—claiming that the FEC’s decision violated Citizens United’s “free speech.” Thus, the dear, old Supreme Court codified the long-fought-for/long-fought-against concepts of corporate free speech, corporate rights and, in essence, corporate personhood.
The court may as well have said that corporations enjoy all the Bill of Rights protections actual people do. (I’ve been reading Jeffrey D. Clements’s new book Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It for a review in another publication. You should read it, too.)
This is all terrifying and infuriating for a lot of reasons, the first and foremost of which being that each day corporations should be thanking me and you and everyone we know for their very existence. Clements points out that corporate status is not a right, it’s a privilege that entities looking to incorporate need to apply for. And it’s a privilege that’s bestowed by state laws, via me and you and all the other voting citizens we know. Among the things we generally let corporations have—because it makes doing business more efficient, which is good for the economy and innovation and lots of other things—are:
- Limited liability, a.k.a. if your corporation fucks up and spills a bunch of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, the corporation pays fines but the shareholders and their families aren’t shaken down for cash, nor do they have their wages garnished until every last crude-coated brine shrimp is scrubbed clean.
- Single entity-hood for the purposes of signing contracts, a.k.a. legally convenient expedience for essential business activities. (Imagine if you had to get everyone at your company to sign off every time you placed a W.B. Mason order).
- Perpetual life, a.k.a. even if all the people who found the corporation die, your corporation, much like Celine Dion’s heart, will go on.
But we get little respect. And the reason is that when it comes down to it, profit and earnings reports and year-over-year results matter much more to most corporations than their responsibilities to the citizens who make their eternal limited liability possible. The increasingly multi-national nature of many corporations—to say nothing of the incredibly corporation-friendly incorporation laws of Delaware (where some 6,500 corporations and more than 200,000 businesses are “headquartered” at 1209 N. Orange St. in Wilmington)—only complicates this matter.
Corporations don’t deserve free speech any more than they deserve our trust to do things like steward the environment or not bankrupt the entire goddamned economy. At its root, free speech, even when hurtful or unpopular, is meant to better society; in the marketplace of ideas, all should be heard. But where “corporate speech” is concerned, it’s not a marketplace of ideas, it’s just a marketplace, one where entities with deep pockets and no faces can spend to their hearts’ content and spin ideas of bald self-interest as good for the public.
Yet here we are. While there’s no impeachment process for the Supreme Court justices who voted in favor of Citizens United, it’s not too late to take a stand. The time is now.
- A good place to start is by getting behind the People’s Rights Amendment movement. The PRA’s a short, sweet document that would clarify exactly who should have speech rights (people) and who shouldn’t (corporations).
- Then there’s Progressives United, an organization and a separate PAC (who would not stop calling me last week) founded by Russ Feingold (he of the trounced McCain-Feingold Act) that aims to preach about the ills of corporate speech rights and support candidates who feel likewise.
- Hell, there’s even an American Sustainable Business Council Business for Democracy campaign for businesses who think this thing ought to be overturned.
- And you can find more resources at corporationsarenotpeople.com.
Take a stand while you can. Occupy the Supreme Court. Make this the People’s Rights Spring.