COLUMBIA — Eleven protesters showed up to the federal court house in Jefferson City on Friday in 28-degree weather. They were there with signs and a bullhorn to demonstrate against the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision handed down by the Supreme Court two years ago on Jan. 21, 2010.
That decision took the limits off the amount of money that some political groups could collect from corporations for political ads.
Rebecca Schedler, an organizer with Occupy COMO, said the movement stands with Move to Amend, an organization advocating for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to prohibit corporations from having the same rights as individuals under the U.S. Constitution. The amendment would also prohibit money spending from being judged as a form of freedom of speech.
“Corporations are not people,” Shari Korthuis, an activist and homemaker present at the Jefferson City protest, said. “There is too much money in politics, and we don’t know how much corporations are giving.”
The Citizens United decision
The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission 5-4 decision came after Citizens United, a nonprofit conservative organization, released a documentary called “Hillary” in January 2008, which was critical of then-Senator Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign.
The Supreme Court ruled that “political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections.”
This overturned the McCain-Feingold law of 2002, which prohibited political parties from collecting limitless contributions from corporations. The Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee decision allows corporations to donate to super PACs, or political action committees, that pool together donations to create advertisements in support or against candidates. Corporations cannot donate directly to a candidate like individuals can, however.
Candidates are required to disclose where they get their donations, whether from committees or individuals. The Federal Election Commission has a searchable database of these donations. Historically, the majority of money directly donated to candidates comes from individuals.
But the donations to some of these committees, independent expenditure-only committees, or super PACs, are hard to trace. ProPublica, a non-profit investigative journalism website, tried to trace where donations to these super PACs came from in the 2010 congressional races, but came up empty.
Corporations as individuals
The notion of treating corporations the same as individuals under the U.S. Constitution dates back to the 1700s in a case known as Trustees of Darthmouth College v. Woodward, Marvin Overby, associate professor of political science at MU, said.
In that case, the state of New Hampshire violated its contract with the college. John Marshall, a Supreme Court judge, wrote that the private college should be treated as an individual would be if the government violated a contract with them in order to protect the corporation — the college.
In 1907, the Tillman Act prohibited corporate donations to federal elections to block Sen. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman’s opposition from receiving money from Northern anti-slavery groups, Overby said.
“Political speech is expensive to get your voice heard in the marketplace,” Overby said. “Part of the price we pay for the First Amendment is allowing other voices in that we may or may not agree with.”
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney brought the issue up while he was in Iowa, telling the crowd during a discussion on tax policy that “corporations are people."
The effect of the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision “remains to be seen,” Overby said. But it’s important to keep election campaign advertisement spending in perspective, he said. Coca-Cola spent $2.6 billion on advertising its products in 2006, while President Obama’s 2008 campaign ads totaled $280 million.
Still, critics of the decision think the legislation and the removal of limits will increase corruption in elections.
“There is no possibility of democracy in this country as long as corporations can buy elections of both branches of government (legislative and executive) and the courts,” Nestor Mackno,a nurse and Columbia resident, said. “They are puppets of large capitalist corporations on both sides (of the aisle).”