55 Vermont Towns Affirm: 'Corporations Are Not People'

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Common Dreams

55 Vermont Towns Affirm: 'Corporations Are Not People'

Can grassroots victory in Green Mountain state spark national movement?

by
Common Dreams staff

The initiatives called on the Vermont Legislature and the state's congressional delegation to support a constitutional amendment that clarifies that 'money is not speech and corporations are not people.' Such an amendment would make it possible for Congress to limit election-related expenditures by for-profit corporations, nonprofits, unions and individuals.

With some results still yet to come in, reports confirm that at least 55 towns in Vermont approved municipal resolutions calling for an end to big money's dominance in US politics and calling for a Constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court's 'Citizens United' decision that has opened the floodgates for secretive, unlimited campaign spending in US elections.

“The people of Vermont and across America are totally disgusted with the huge amounts of money that billionaires and corporations are throwing into the political process,” US Senator Bernie Sanders said today. “We have to overturn this disastrous Citizens United decision. I hope the message coming out of the town meetings will spark a grassroots movement across the United States.”

The initiatives called on the Vermont Legislature and the state's congressional delegation to support a constitutional amendment that clarifies that 'money is not speech and corporations are not people.' Such an amendment would make it possible for Congress to limit election-related expenditures by for-profit corporations, nonprofits, unions and individuals.

“Vermonters are taking a lead in the growing movement for a constitutional amendment to limit the influence of big money and corporations in our democracy,” said Aquene Freechild, senior organizer with Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People campaign. Public Citizen – along with Move to Amend/Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Vermont Peace and Justice Center, VPIRG, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, Rural Vermont, Common Cause Vermont, Occupy Burlington, Vermonters Say Corporations Are Not People, Vermont Action for Peace, Vermont Workers Center, and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (co-founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream) – worked with Vermont activists to collect signatures and get the resolutions on town meeting agendas.

Late last year, Sanders introduced the Saving American Democracy Amendment. His proposal would restore the power of Congress and state lawmakers to enact campaign spending limits like laws that were in place for a century before the controversial court ruling.

The Associated Press reported that in most towns where 'corporate personhood' resolutions were on the agenda, they were passed with "overwhelming margins." And added:

State Sen. Virginia Lyons of Chittenden County, an organizer of the movement, said that when she started pushing for the idea she would have been thrilled to see the measure taken up in four or five towns.

"People are just fed up with the status quo," she said after the polls closed. [...]

Supporters of the personhood amendment want Congress to begin the process of amending the Constitution to overrule the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision, which critics say has unleashed huge amounts of unregulated money into the presidential election process.

Lyons said she knows the process of amending the constitution is a long one.

"It took 40 or 45 years just to get women the vote," Lyons said. "For me, this is just the beginning of something. We need to absolutely set the record straight. We can't continue down the slippery slope we've been traveling. It's not just money, but corporate influence in everything we do."

The measure failed to pass in only two locations, said Fairchild, who was monitoring the votes for the group Public Citizen.

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Concensus abounds, but 'complicated' battle still ahead

Seven Days, an indepedent Vermont paper, spoke with state Rep. Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg) who "was packing up a cardboard box and shaking his head" because, though he agreed in principle, thought the vote in his town was an “ill-formed” attempt to halt the “obscene amounts of money distorting the political process.”

“It’s far more complicated than it appears on the surface,” Lippert said of the issue, noting the amendment would restrain nonprofit corporations, not just for-profit ones. “You start sorting it out, it’s not as neat and clean as people would like it to be.”

And the Seven Days report continued:

In the state legislature, Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden) and 10 cosponsors have proposed a joint resolution urging Congress to amend the constitution to say that corporations are not people. The Senate Committee on Government Operations is set to take up the resolution next week, and at least one witness has warned that, as written, the resolution could have “catastrophic” unintended consequences.

Benson Scotch, a Vermont lawyer who served as chief staff attorney to the Vermont Supreme Court and was executive director of the Vermont ACLU, told the committee last month that “money is not speech” makes a fine motto but could cause trouble if it’s enshrined in a resolution.

To illustrate, Scotch offered a hypothetical: Imagine that a town, tired of Occupy protests and mounting police costs, passes an ordinance against rowdy meetings or promoting rowdy meetings. A political organization solicits donations to buy television airtime opposing the ordinance. When the town goes to court to stop the fundraising, the organization raises its First Amendment right to free speech and assembly.

“The court under this amendment might dismiss the complaint because money is not speech,” Scotch testified, “and therefore no speech rights have been violated.”

Lyons says she’s suggested modifications to her resolution and is hopeful the Gov Ops committee will incorporate them.

“We are not writing the amendment,” she notes. “We are writing a resolution urging Congress to please send an amendment for ratification. There are greater constitutional minds than Vermont’s senators at work.”

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