Legislature works to limit free speech of corporations
May 9, 2012
By Katy Grimes
The U.S. Constitution is under attack again.
At issue is the controversial Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission U.S. Supreme Court decision. It basically allowed unlimited corporate contributions to political campaigns.
Two Assembly Democrats authored Assembly Joint Resolution 22 and say that it is part of a growing national grassroots movement to urge Congress to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court decision.
In March, the Assembly passed AJR 22 to urge Congress to amend the United States Constitution, and impose limits on political corporate contributions.
Assemblymen Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, and Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa, presented AJR 22 to the Senate Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments Tuesday. “As the most populous state in the country, with the largest congressional delegation, California must take a stand in opposition to this misguided ruling,” Wieckowski said.
“Corporations are not people and money is not speech,” is the rally cry for those who want the case overturned.
“At a time when the people’s trust in their government is at an all-time low, Citizens United further erodes the public’s faith that the people’s interests will come before those of wealthy special interests,” the authors wrote in bill analysis.
In January 2010, the United States Supreme Court reached the landmark decision which reaffirmed that the First Amendment did, in fact, prohibit the government from restricting political expenditures by corporations and unions. The court said that political contributions are a form of free speech, and should not be regulated or narrowly tailored by the government for its own interest.
As part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, also called McCain-Feingold, Congress prohibited corporations and unions from using general treasury funds to make “independent expenditures” for “electioneering communications” within 60 days of a general election, or within 30 days of a primary election.
The AJR 22 analysis explained, “Citizens United was a controversial documentary entitled, Hillary, which was highly critical of then-Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a candidate in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. Citizens United, a non-profit corporation, wanted to make the documentary available by ‘video-on-demand’ within the 30 days of the primary election. Concerned that the broadcast might be prohibited by BCRA, Citizens United sought declaratory and injunctive relief that the BCRA did not apply to the documentary and, indeed, would be unconstitutional if applied to the showing of Hillary.”
When the case came before it in 2o10, the court proceeded not only to strike down the related provisions of McCain-Feingold, but to overturn long-standing precedents upholding the constitutionality of federal and state efforts to regulate campaign financing. In overturning its prior decisions, the Supreme Court in Citizens United held that corporations and unions are now free to spend unlimited amounts on “independent expenditures” — even for advertisements that expressly mention the candidate by name.
One of the outcomes of the Citizen United decision was the creation of Super Committees and SuperPacs, which may accept unlimited contributions from individuals, unions, and corporations.
Despite the Supreme Court stating that the First Amendment “must protect corporations and individuals with equal vigor,” California Democrats continue to push the passage of the resolution urging Congress to amend the Constitution, and limit corporate contributions to political PACs.
During the Assembly floor debate of AJR 22, arguments and floor speeches by Democratic legislators only addressed corporate contributions. Democrats in the Assembly never once mentioned union contributions. The Democrats repeatedly said that AJR 22 wasn’t just a resolution, but was part of a national movement to limit and control corporate political contributions.
AJR 22, is one of 13 resolutions seeking to overturn Citizens United. All of the other 13 resolutions seek to overturn the decision in different ways. Some of the resolutions also claim that corporations are not “persons’; others would seek more congressional power to regulate campaign contributions and expenditures more narrowly.
Wieckowski said that, with his resolution, California will be part of a “grassroots movement that believes corporations are not people and money is not speech,” a quote made famous by David Kairys, the civil rights law professor who warned that the 2010 court decision would unleash “a new wave of campaign cash and adds to the already considerable power of corporations.”
Supporters of the resolution who testified at the hearing included CalPIRG, the California Public Interest Research Group, a group founded by activist Ralph Nader; Common Cause, a non-profit association often described as “the people’s lobbying association,” but which also is a liberal activist grouip; California Church Impact; California League of Conservation Voters; Public Action; and a succession of private citizens angry about the Citizens United decision.
The groups supporting AJR 22 called for “reasonable limits” for contributions. “What are reasonable limits?” asked the committee chairman, Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana. “This is window dressing.”
Correa suggested that Proposition 34, passed in 2008, would be a more effective policy. Prop 34 limits the amount of money an individual can contribute to candidates for the California State Legislature and for statewide elective offices. It also limits contributions to political parties. Prop 34 expanded financial disclosure requirements and prohibited contributions from lobbyists to the election campaigns of politicians they lobby.
But the unintended outcome of Proposition 34 allowed many other ways for officeholders, candidates and special-interest contributors to legally circumvent the measure’s contribution limits.
Republicans are opposed to the resolution and have said that the government-imposed restrictions should be removed from political campaign contributions, and complete disclosure and transparency about who is contributing should be required instead.
During the Assembly floor debate about AJR 22, the most pertinent question to the argument was asked by Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Hesperia: “What is a corporation? A corporation is an assembly of people. If you’re regulated by the government, don’t you have the right to address your government?”
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