CITIZENS UNITED ACTION (Part 1)

Here’s issue #28 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 5/6/12. It describes an action step – local resolutions – being taken around the country to work toward overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

As you probably remember, in January 2010, the US Supreme Court, in a five-to-four decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, ruled that corporations, unions, and other groups have the same freedom of speech rights as are granted toU.S. citizens under the Bill of Rights. The court expanded on previous rulings that spending money is considered “speech” and held, for the first time, that limiting campaign spending by corporations, unions, and others would violate their freedom of speech rights. It struck down key provisions of the bipartisan McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, despite its being upheld by the Supreme Court in 2003, and overturned the 1907 law banning corporate contributions.

In response, many communities and some states have passed resolutions that call for overturning the Citizens United decision. This can only be done through a Constitutional Amendment or by the Court reversing itself (which doesn’t seem at all likely). In my home town ofReading,Massachusetts, we just passed such a resolution. Here’s an overview of it and how it happened. Perhaps this will be valuable to you if you should get the opportunity to be involved in such an effort.

A group of residents got together and decided that we wanted to present a Citizens United resolution in our town. We drafted a resolution based on what had passed in another town in Massachusetts, which was a short and simple version of the draft resolution on the Move to Amend website. [1] The resolution states that:

  • Free speech rights belong to people not corporations or other organizations, and
  • Unlimited spending by corporations and others in our elections presents a real danger to our democracy because they can drown out the voices and interests of ordinary citizens.

The resolution calls:

  • On Congress to pass an amendment to our Constitution to clearly establish that money is not the same as speech, and that only human beings are entitled to constitutional rights such as free speech, and
  • On our state Legislature to pass a resolution calling for such a Constitutional amendment.

We first approached our Board of Selectmen (which may be a Town or City Council where you live). The process will vary, but our Selectmen recommended that we petition to have the resolution on the agenda for our Town Meeting (this is probably unique to New England). We got the handful of signatures required and the resolution became an official agenda item. At Town Meeting, I started off with a short, 10 minute, Power Point presentation to initiate the consideration of the resolution.

One objection to the resolution, even from some who supported its content, was that it was not an appropriate matter for a local governmental body. There are three key responses to this argument:

  • This is a local issue because corporations or others could spend unlimited money to elect or defeat local candidates or on a local ballot question. For example, if a developer wanted officials or a zoning change that would allow a development project, it could spend unlimited money to achieve that goal.
  • Only a huge groundswell of citizens voices from the local level on up will overcome the resistance and inertia of corporateAmericaand our political system.
  • Hundreds of communities across the country have felt it was appropriate to consider and pass resolutions that call for overturning the Citizens United decision. And the number is growing rapidly. InMassachusetts, the number is now 34 with 14 added this week.

The next issue of the newsletter will present other arguments that support such a resolution. If you would like a copy of the actual resolution or the Power Point slides and talking points I used, please email me.


[1]       Move to Amend (http://movetoamend.org/) is one of the organizations leading the fight to overturn the Citizens United decision. There is lots of information and tools to support local action at its website. Common Cause (http://www.commoncause.org) and its Amend 2012 project (http://www.amend2012.org) are also leaders of this effort.

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