by Kevin Ryan
There appears to be a grassroots Vermont movement promoting a United States Constitutional Amendment which would undo the Supreme Court ruling commonly known as “Citizens United”, which allows unlimited spending by corporations and unions in election campaigns. Turns out, it isn’t grassroots, and it isn’t local. Also, if you’re a fan of the First Amendment, it should scare you.
In brief, the issue here is what the law, and especially the Left, would term as “Corporate Personhood”, or the legal concept that companies and unions have rights under the law, in the same way that you and I, termed “natural persons”, do. Volumes of research and scholarship have been written on this issue and the beef this week is that, thanks to the Supreme Court, companies can influence elections by telling others what they think. The Left isn’t happy about this.
Back in 2008, a non-profit corporation called Citizens United decided to make a movie, a documentary called Hillary – The Movie,
about Hillary Clinton and show it on television. Hillary didn’t like the movie, and so she complained to the Federal Elections Commission that it violated federal law regarding election spending. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of the United States disagreed, and said that the Federal Government has no authority to tell people whether they can show movies or not. That pesky First Amendment gets in the way, don’t you know.
So a fellow from Wisconsin, former Green Party Co-Chair Ben Manski, decided to do something about it… he’d change the First Amendment and limiting free speech and the freedom to assemble. He formed a movement called movetoamend.org, which has caught on across the country, and whose goal is to alter the United States Constitution itself, by giving Congress the authority to decide who can speak and who can’t, based on how they legally organize, or for all practical purposes, what they are saying. Sound un-American to you? Does to me too.
Here’s the key distinction with Manski and his followers: They say if you are a person, a real human being, of course you have the right to free speech. However, if you get together with other people, you have no rights whatsoever and the Government can punish you for speaking out.
Here’s what Ben Manski’s proposed constitutional amendment says, “Artificial entities, such as corporations, limited liability companies, and other entities, established by the laws of any State, the United States, or any foreign state shall have no rights under this Constitution….”. I’ll give Manski one thing, he does specifically name corporations as one of his types of entities, but the way I read this, non-profits, unions, associations and even foreign countries could be punished for speaking their minds. That might even include two people sitting together in a coffee shop chatting over the news.
Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t worry about folks like Manski or his National Spokesperson, 2004 Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb, as they have little influence for promoting such off the wall ideas. However, many national groups such as Code Pink, Democracy for America and Sierra Club chapters have signed on to this proposal. Worse yet, United States Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Vermont’s own Senator Bernie Sanders have introduced a version of this amendment for consideration by Congress. Senator Sanders version is slightly different then Manski’s. Bernie says: “The rights protected by the Constitution of the United States are the rights of natural persons and do not extend to for-profit corporations, limited liability companies, or other private entities…”. Does that sound better? I thought not.
What that proposed clause by Bernie means, in short, is that you, as a human being, have rights, but if you dare to get together with anyone else to speak, write, influence an election or spend as much as a nickel to do so, Congress may pass a law sending you to prison. I say that isn’t good. Many of my fellow Vermonters disagree, primarily because they don’t like what others’ say about them.
I attended their local organizational meeting in Burlington on December 15th. Everyone in attendance seemed to know the issue well and there was little explanation of why either of the above constitutional limits on free speech were needed, and the meeting was mostly limited to how to get voters and local select boards to “send a message to Congress” to make this change.
Vermont State Senator Ginny Lyons attended, following her resolution last January to convince the Vermont Senate that removing free speech rights was a good idea. Spencer Putnam, a Director of Vermont Teddy Bear spoke at the meeting as well, noting that he’d told his State Representative that, “she’d better get on this if she wants to keep her seat, because everyone agrees with this.”
Meanwhile, on December 19th, The Burlington City Council approved a resolution recommending that Congress pass an amendment like the ones proposed by Senator Sanders and Ben Manski. Councilors Ed Adrian, Sharon Bushor, David Berezniak, Bram Kranichfeld, Joan Shannon, Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, Brennan and Karen Paul all voted to advise Congress remove the right of people to speak out politically as a group. Maybe you should give them a call and tell them what you think, just don’t tell them you and I got together to do it.