In response to Sen. Jon Tester’s guest column on Jan. 26, I would like to offer an alternative thought on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Citizen United. I have heard several Democratic speakers voice their concern over the Citizen United Supreme Court decision and have yet heard or read a rebuttal, so I will attempt to offer up what I believe are credible arguments supporting the Citizen United decision.
The statement that Sen. Tester began with, “A century ago ... the people of Montana stood up against some of the most influential corporations in history with a powerful message: People and their ideas — not corporations and their money — decide our elections,” is where I’d like to begin. The above statement contains a flaw.
Much has changed in the last century. Our democracy of “the people” now includes women voters (1920), African- Americans who were disenfranchised with Jim Crow policies until 1960s, Native Americans (1920s) and anyone between the age of 18 and 20 (1972). So, “the people” that Sen. Tester is speaking about a century ago were white, 21-year-old males. That is a pretty narrow democratic voting pool that was easily controlled by the corporate interests in Montana, which, at that time, were the Copper Kings.
Today the voting pool of “the people” is much more diverse and, over the last century, has doubled the size of the American democracy. Women alone double the number of voters. It is inconceivable that a corporation — no matter what its size — could control the actions of such a huge, diverse, voting population. Something else to consider is that the diverse voters of today are far more educated because they have access to many more resources than the white, 21-year-old males of yesteryear. I believe that American women, Native Americans, African-Americans, white males and young voters, whether in Montana or in national elections, are smart enough to determine fact from fiction in faulty advertisements whether those ads be paid for by wealthy individuals, for profit or non-profit corporations, or labor unions.
The Supreme Court got it right. Since 1819, the Supreme Court has allowed corporations to act as a person. The controversy dwells in the question of whether a corporation, as a legal person, can have the same rights as a private citizen. Does the First Amendment, with its five free expression rights, extend to corporations?
I believe that the Supreme Court, over the course of 200 years, has been correct to consistently apply First Amendment rights to corporations. With Citizens United, the Supreme Court has now placed the states on 14th Amendment alert, saying, in effect, that they cannot pick and choose which citizens to give First Amendment rights to.
For example, the Michael Moore film, "Fahrenheit 9/11," which was highly critical of the Bush administration’s response to the terrorists attacks in 2001, was released during the 2004 presidential election for the obvious purpose of hurting Bush’s re-election chances. When opponents challenged the timing of the release as a violation of federal election law, The Federal Elections Commission dismissed the complaint. In the wake of this decision, Citizens United, a non-profit corporation, did the same thing in 2008 to promote a political documentary "Hillary: The Movie," which was critical of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, candidate for president. Angry over the release of the movie and its timing, opponents of "Hillary: The Movie," could have — but didn’t — file a complaint with the FEC because the conditions were the same as the Moore movie against Bush. Instead, Citizens United was taken to court by opponents of "Hillary: The Movie" for violation of federal campaign laws in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The lower court found that the film had no purpose other than to discredit Clinton’s candidacy for president, thus deciding against Citizens United. The Supreme Court docketed the case on Aug. 18, 2008, and heard oral arguments on March 24, 2009. The Supreme Court overturned the lower court in a 5-4 decision in favor of Citizens United to maintain a historical consistency in First Amendment rights.
Essentially, the Supreme Court expanded democracy — rather than limit it. Just as poll taxes that kept poor people away from the polling places were undemocratic, so, too, are the policies that keep “rich corporations” away from elections. All Americans have voices, whether they are rich or poor. Sen. Tester stated that allowing corporations to spend their money on elections was not democratic, in fact it’s an “attack on our democracy.”
This thinking comes from a very narrow view of what a corporation is. Nearly all Americans benefit from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Let me explain.
“Big Oil” is the term used to demonize by those who want to attack corporations.
One study completed by Robert Shapiro and Nam Pham of Seventeen States Public Employee Pension Programs (2005-2009) concluded that oil and gas investments outperformed the returns of other investments by 20.5 percent. In money terms, for every $1 invested on non-oil and natural gas investments the return was $1.02, but investment on oil and natural gas stocks gave a return of $1.41 for every $1 invested.
The face of “Big Oil” is not some fat cat, smoking a stogie behind his desk in a high rise building.
Nearly every American with a pension, including public employees with a public pension plan, can be considered “Big Oil.” Public employees with pension plans include policemen, firemen, teachers, city and county workers, and federal employees like postal workers. Private union workers with pensions, like railroaders and auto workers, and nearly anyone that has a private portfolio has money invested in “Big Oil.”
Who is this demon “Big Oil?” Look in the mirror. If you have a pension — it's you.
I cannot support a Constitutional Amendment that takes personhood away from corporations (whether they are profit or non-profit) and also takes away the free speech of tens of millions of Americans that depend upon corporation action and successful economic management of their investments and pensions. Our government officials seem to welcome the corporation and wealthy Americans’ tax money. President Obama indicated in his 2012 State of the Union Address that he would like to see personal income taxes on the wealthy increase from 15 percent up to 30 percent.
It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the thinking that we have elements in our government wanting to tax the wealthy and corporations and, at the same time, deny these same Americans a voice in making campaign ads that support or speak against the policy makers that set their tax rates. I believe the five Supreme Court justices in the Citizens United decision are saying that we cannot allow taxation without representation because the “power to tax is the power to destroy.” Any discussion about taking free speech rights away from a traditional segment of American society should be carefully considered.
(John B. Ita lives in Havre.)