Supreme Court decision unleashed a monster — money is not speech

This month, the Altamont Village Board passed a resolution calling for a Constitutional amendment to counteract the 2010 decision by the United States Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The town of Guilderland had passed a similar resolution earlier.

Pushing for a Constitutional amendment is a slow slog but a worthwhile one.

We recall, as a young woman in the 1970s, knocking on doors to work for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. The sentiment to us seemed simple and just, as well as essential: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged…on account of sex.”

What could anyone object to?

“You would have to share public bathrooms with men,” one woman told us.

“Ladies would have to fight in wars, just like we do,” said a man.

“I like it when a man opens a door for me,” said another woman, closing her door in my face.

That amendment was introduced in Congress in 1923 during the first wave of American feminism; it took the second wave to get quick passage in both houses. And 35 of the 38 states required had ratified the ERA before the conservative backlash took hold. The ERA died a slow and lingering death as the Republican Party withdrew its support and five of the states rescinded their ratification.

The American citizenry is currently divided, deeply divided, on many Supreme Court decisions — from abortion and health care to immigration and gay marriage. But Americans agree on campaign financing. A recent Bloomberg poll shows that the vast majority in both major parties opposed the court’s ruling in Citizens United — 80 percent of Republicans and 83 percent of Democrats.

This is significant because the court’s 5-to-4 ruling was made by its conservative majority.

After the FEC allowed election-time trailers to air on Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” critical of George W. Bush, because the FEC found it “represented bona fide commercial activity,” Citizens United, a conservative political action committee, set out to become a bona fide commercial producer of films itself and then wanted to air promotions for “Hillary: The Movie,” critical of Clinton as she ran for Senate.

The FEC said this would violate the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.  The resulting Supreme Court ruling redefined election financing in the United States. The court held that the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech, prohibits the government from restricting independent political expenditures by a nonprofit corporation like Citizens United; this has been extended to for-profit corporations, and to associations like labor unions.

“If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority. The majority said that the First Amendment protects associations of individuals as well as individual speakers. The First Amendment was written in “terms of speech, not speakers,” wrote the late Justice Antonin Scalia in a concurring opinion, stating, “Its text offers no foothold for excluding any category of speaker.”

This decision allowed corporations to spend money on “electioneering communications” and to advocate for the defeat or election of candidates. Most of the hundreds of millions of dollars this ruling unleashed — largely from a small number of billionaires — has come through super PACs, or political action committees.

“This ruling strikes at our democracy itself,” President Barack Obama said in his weekly radio address soon after the decision was handed down.

Harvey Vlahos of Altamont, who brought the resolution for a Constitutional amendment to the village board, and also to our newsroom, said something similar. “It’s the essence of democracy,” he said of free speech being granted to individuals.

Justice John P. Stevens may have said it best, in writing the dissenting opinion: “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”

He also wrote that the majority had not seen there can be corruption outside of quid pro quo exchanges — trading one thing for another. He cited data showing 80 percent of Americans see corporate independent expenditures as a method to gain unfair legislative access.

Legal entities, like corporations, have perpetual life and can amass large fortunes with no ability to vote, no morality, no purpose outside of profit-making, and no loyalty — so, Stevens concluded, the courts should permit legislatures to regulate corporate participation in the political process.

Legal entities, like corporations, are not “We the People” for whom the constitution was established, Stevens wrote.

The resolution adopted in Altamont — which is part of a nationwide movement — echoes those sentiments. The Constitution, it says, refers to people in enumerating citizens’ rights — such as the right to bear arms or to freely assemble — not to corporations, which are artificial entities “subservient to their creators.”

Further, the resolution says, corporations do not vote in elections and “the democratic principle of one person, one vote, is incompatible with the concept of monetary expenditure as speech, given that the individuals and corporations, unions and associations possess unequal ability to spend money to influence elections.”

Inalienable rights belong to human beings, not corporations. Money is not speech.

We wholeheartedly support this movement for a Constitutional amendment. But, as we said at the outset, we know it’s a long slog — and a long shot.

So, what can we do in the meantime, if we’re not knocking on doors, or doing the modern-day electronic equivalent, to lobby for our cause?

We can each of us be vigilant in discerning the truth from the spin in the political messages we see and hear. This week, we New Yorkers have been inundated with political messages because of Tuesday’s presidential primary. From now until November, let’s be smart about understanding who is paying for the messages that pop up on our computers, show up in print and on television, and reach our ears through telephone robo calls or radio.

Let’s look to reliable news sources to find out what is hype, what is true, and what is out-and-out falsehood. We don’t have to have the same views or support the same candidates; that’s not the point of a democracy.

Four-fifths of us oppose the Citizens United Decision. So let us, the vast majority, take that next step to ignore the messages being spewed at us and seek the truth instead.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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