THE FIRST three words of the preamble of our Constitution are “We the People.’’
Two years ago today the US Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission upended that promising vision. Corporations — which do not have mouths, minds, or consciences — won a “free speech’’ right to spend unlimited money to influence elections.
The court cast aside a century of law intended to prevent the biggest, richest corporations from controlling our elections and government. We now see a flood of uncontrolled and undisclosed special-interest money flowing into our electoral system, drowning out the voices of average Americans and deepening cynicism and hopelessness about our politics.
While shocking, Citizens United was not a fluke. Unelected courts have increasingly allowed the radical “corporate speaker’’ theory that lies behind Citizen United to trump the judgment of the people and their elected representatives, and to damage the public interest far beyond elections.
We see the consequences around us, from jobs and wages to health care and the environment.
A federal judge in Washington recently used corporate speech rights to block the Food and Drug Administration from requiring tobacco companies to place graphic warning labels on cigarette packages.
A federal court sided with Monsanto and other corporations in their efforts against state laws requiring labeling of milk, cheese, ice cream, and other dairy products that come from cows injected with a genetically modified bovine drug that is banned in most democracies in the world.
Utility corporations have used courts to strike down conservation and other energy laws. Wall Street corporations demand the invalidation of shareholder democracy laws. Corporate-owned universities file litigation because they claim graduation and job-placement standards violate corporate rights.
Corporations are not people. They are artificial entities that we the people create under state laws. They do not breathe. They do not have children. They do not go to war. Yet they now have far more say than we the people.
We cannot afford to let Citizens United go unchallenged. We need the People’s Rights Amendment to renew our republican democracy and the integrity of our Bill of Rights.
There are only two ways a Supreme Court ruling can be overturned. The court can do so in a new case, or the people can do so by ratifying a Constitutional amendment, as we have done at least six times before. Given the corporate-friendly approach of the current Roberts court, we can’t wait for the Supreme Court to correct Citizens United.
The People’s Rights Amendment is the best solution. It answers basic question raised by Citizens United: Are we a government of free and equal people or a government of the most powerful, most wealthy corporations?
The People’s Rights Amendment makes clear that the words “people’’ and “person’’ in our Constitution mean human beings, not economic entities with special privileges created by state law. This clarifies the authority of Congress and the states to regulate “corporations, limited liability companies or other corporate entities established by the laws of any state, the United States, or any foreign state’’ as the people see fit. The amendment is crafted to protect the people’s rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free exercise of religion, freedom of association, and all other rights.
We need a serious, thoughtful debate in this country on the role of corporations in our lives. The People’s Rights Amendment will spur that debate and, once ratified, will ensure, in Lincoln’s words, that “government of, for, and by the people shall not perish from the Earth.’’