These maxims have become a rallying cry for opponents of the recent decision in the case of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 vote that political spending is a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. Now, opponents of the ruling hope to add these words to the U.S. Constitution.
The drive to amend the Constitution and to specify that — Citizens United notwithstanding — corporations are in fact not people has been percolating at the grassroots level ever since the nation's highest court made its decision in January 2010. On Monday night, the Palo Alto City Council will consider whether the city should throw its support behind this movement.
At least one local commission thinks it should. The Human Relations Commission has already discussed the proposed amendment at two meetings and voted 6-0 (with Daryl Savage absent) on Sept. 13 to support the grassroots effort by the group Santa Clara County Move to Amend. Several members of the organization attended that meeting and urged the city to back their proposed resolution, which makes a clear distinction between corporations and people.
Debbie Mytels, a Palo Alto resident, called corporations "very useful constructions for human societies" and ones that are needed to carry out business and facilitate investments. But, she added, "We also feel that it's important that these entities be regulated and that they do not have the rights that the Constitution gives to us, as individual real people."
"We're not asking that corporations be abolished," Mytels said. "We're really asking for regulations and limitations on them as artificial constructions for human society."
The resolution passed by the Human Relations Commission states that corporations are "not naturally endowed with conscience or the rights of human beings" and that they have "unduly influenced and unfairly interfered with democratic processes by pressuring our legislators and dominating election campaigns with virtually unlimited contributions."
"When freedom to speak is equated with freedom to spend money, millions of people who have less money are de facto disenfranchised because their free speech is overwhelmed by the message of those spending millions of dollars."
If the council follows the commission's lead, it would join about two dozen local governments in California that have already passed similar resolutions, including San Francisco, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oakland and Mountain View. Ray Bacchetti, a member of the Human Relations Commission, said that it makes sense to discuss the issue at the local level because local elections are less likely to be influenced by corporate money than those at state and national levels.
"That's a way of starting something that's of a benefit to the whole nation at the level where it has the best chance of being thoughtfully considered rather than influenced by people who want a particular outcome," Bacchetti said at the September discussion.
Claude Ezran, who chairs the commission, was one of several members who said they were swayed by the dissenting opinion of Justice John Paul Stevens, who argued that the majority had failed to recognize the potential of money to corrupt and unduly influence political elections. Stevens had argued that corporations are not members of the group that is referred to in the Constitution as "We the People."
"Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it," Stevens wrote in his dissent. "They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters."
Ezran agreed with Stevens' point about money's influence on elections and noted that "having a much bigger megaphone that drowns out any other voice is fundamentally undemocratic."
"Thinking that corporations, which are entities, would have the same rights as people — that just defies common sense," Ezran said. "Imagine somebody from maybe another country or planet coming here, and we're arguing whether corporations are people — they'd think that would be completely crazy."
The Monday discussion will mark the second time this month that the council thrusts itself into a debate with implications far beyond the city's borders. The council voted 8-0 (with Gail Price absent) earlier this month to support Proposition 34, which would ban the death penalty in California and create a fund that would be distributed to law-enforcement agencies throughout the state.