OAKLAND, Calif. - "Corporations are not people," their signs read. "Human rights for human beings!"
As several dozen demonstrators greeted commuters leaving a rapid transit station in the early evening of Jan. 21, they were joining people throughout the country who commemorated the first anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission by calling in various ways to overturn the decision, which gave corporations the rights of citizens to campaign in elections.
Last year, in a narrow 5-4 decision, the court ruled in favor of Citizens United, a right-wing nonprofit organization that claimed its free speech rights were harmed by laws that restrict political spending by corporations, unions and other organizations. The ruling opened the way for unlimited election spending by big business.
Within days, President Obama blasted the ruling in his 2010 State of the Union speech, saying the court had "reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests - including foreign corporations - to spend without limit in our elections." The president called on Congress to "pass a bill to correct some of these problems."
In April Congressional Democrats introduced the DISCLOSE Act (Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections), to limit political ad spending by corporations bailed out by the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and those with government contracts or more than 20 percent foreign-owned.
The bill passed the House, but ran aground in the Senate when supporters couldn't muster 60 votes to bring it to the floor.
Others, including Common Cause, urged public financing of congressional campaigns, and some, including the Service Employees International Union, called for shareholder votes before corporations could broadcast ads, as well as protections for workers whose bosses press them to get involved in political activities. And of course, Republicans and corporate interests praised the court decision as a victory for First Amendment rights.
The effect on the 2010 midterm elections was clear. Reporting less than two weeks before Election Day, CBS investigative correspondent Sharyl Attkisson said spending of $3.7 billion was more than 30 percent above the previous midterm, and for the first time outside groups were outspending the Democratic and Republican parties. She said ad volume and spending was up 75 percent over 2008, and quoted Republican strategist Karl Rove as saying, "We're going to put it to good use to defeat Democrats who have supported the president's agenda."
Fast forward to this year's anniversary.
- From Alabama to Alaska and many points in between, activists came together under the banners of MoveOn, Public Citizen and others to urge support for a constitutional amendment stating that corporations are not natural persons and are not entitled to constitutional rights.
- MoveOn also urged signatures on petitions to state lawmakers asking them to support a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment.
- Senator Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., reintroduced the Disclose Act.
- Common Cause is calling on the Justice Department to investigate a possible conflict of interest on the part of Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, who voted with the majority. They were featured guests at secret strategy sessions sponsored by Koch Industries, which benefited greatly from Citizens United.
- Business leaders held a press conference to announce formation of Business for Democracy, to oppose unlimited spending on candidates for public office. Among participants: Ben & Jerry's founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, Stonyfield Farm, Seventh Generation and nearly two dozen other companies and leaders.
- And proponents of public funding for elections pointed to the Fair Elections Now Act, introduced by Reps. John Larson, D-Conn., Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, and Walter Jones, R-N.C.
Image: Marilyn Bechtel / PW