by Rob Roper & Gerhard Meyer
Aquene Freechild, a Senior Organizer for the left-wing, D.C. based organization, Public Citizen, lead a statewide, training and strategy conference call in Vermont. The objective is to put an item on Vermont Town Meeting ballots with formal call to amend the United States Constitution to, in effect, overturn the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Committee.
Justice Anthony Kennedy summed up what was at stake in that controversial court case very succinctly in writing for the majority, “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” Those on the phone call are determined to change the Constitution so that the First Amendment, as we know it, does not have such force.
The callers contend that their position is very simple. “Money is not speech, and corporations are not people.” However, the First Amendment is also very simple. It reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Money may or may not be ‘speech.’ But the First Amendment also protects each person’s rights to press (the right to freely print and distribute those opinions we speak), assembly (the right to freely organize ourselves into groups — as a corporation, perhaps), and the freedom, as individuals or as groups, to petition the government. Money is an inarguably critical component to printing and distributing opinions, and can be, depending upon the method, organizing and petitioning the government.
During the strategy call the group proposed that in order to woo conservatives into supporting the Town Meeting Day petition drive, unions would be included along with corporations in having their rights limited. However, this is hollow rhetoric. The Vermont resolution that the Town Meeting Day petitions would support does not mention any specific language at all for a potential amendment, and says nothing about unions. It only urges, “…the Vermont Congressional Delegation and the U.S. Congress to propose a U.S. Constitutional amendment for the States’ consideration which provides that money is not speech, and that corporations are not persons under the U.S. Constitution…” No mention of unions whatsoever.
The only two examples specific language being offered in congress, the Udall amendment and the Deutch amendment, do not mention unions either. In fact, the Deutch Amendment, supported by our own Senator Sanders, states that only private corporations — excluding non-profits and unions — would be affected.
When a caller raised the concern that this amendment, if adopted, could essentially give the government the power to control what entities can and can’t spend money on, Freechild asked the other participants to chime in. Receiving no initial response, one of the coordinators said, “Commercial speech, which is typically what corporate speech has been, has always been heavily regulated. This wouldn’t change that at all. Speech is regulated in all forms…like you can’t incite violence. That’s a crime for an individual. But corporate speech is regulated because you shouldn’t be able to put anything you want on the label of a medicine, for example. And so, that’s a concern they may have, but it’s not really relevant to this conversation for the most part. That would be the short answer”. One wonders what the long answer would be.
According to information provided on the call, Public Citizen is organized and has at least one contact person in forty-five Vermont towns. Among those listed on an email sent out by Freechild are:
Barre, Bennington, Bolton, Braintree, Brookfield, Brattleboro, Burlington, Charlotte, Colchester, Craftsbury, Hardwick, Cuttingsville, East Montpelier, Essex/Essex Junction, Fayston, Fletcher, Hartford, Hinesburg, Jericho, Marlboro, Marshfield, Plainsfield, Middletown Springs, Monkton, Montgomery Center, Montpelier, Norwich, Pittsfield, Putney, Randolph, Richmond, Ripton, Rochester, Rutland, Shaftsbury, Sharon, Springfield, Walden, Woodbury, Westford, Westminister West, Williamstown, Williston, Willmington, Winooski, and Woodstock.