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“Free Speech for People” Coalition Calls for Constitutional Amendment to Overturn Citizens United Decision Allowing Unlimited Corporate Spending on Elections

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Part of the reason for the record-high campaign spending in this year’s midterm elections is the Supreme Court’s January ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled corporations have First Amendment rights and that the government cannot impose restrictions on their political speech, which cleared the way for corporations and other special interest groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections. Earlier this month, a group of more than fifty law professors and prominent attorneys issued a letter calling on Congress to consider a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision. We speak with two people involved with Free Speech for People, a coalition of public interest organizations that formed after the Citizens United ruling. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Part of the reason for the record-high campaign spending in this year’s midterm elections is the Supreme Court’s ruling in January in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The Court’s decision cleared the way for corporations, unions and other interest groups to spend unlimited amounts of money to elect and defeat candidates.

In a five-to-four decision, the Court ruled corporations have First Amendment rights and that the government cannot impose restrictions on their political speech. The ruling has come under heavy criticism, including from President Obama, who openly criticized the Court’s decision in his State of the Union address.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, a group of more than fifty law professors and prominent attorneys, including seven former state attorneys general, issued a letter calling on Congress to consider a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision. The letter says the Citizens United ruling, quote, “was not only wrongly decided but presents a serious danger to effective self-government of, for and by the American people, a danger which must be addressed.”

The letter was drafted and circulated by Free Speech for People, a coalition of public interest groups formed after the Citizens United ruling. John Bonifaz is the co-founder and director of Free Speech for People and the legal director of Voter Action. He’s joining us from Chicopee, Massachusetts. And here in New York, we’re joined by Jeff Clements, former assistant attorney general of Massachusetts. He’s the general counsel of Free Speech for People.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Jeff, let’s begin with you. Lay this out, what it is that you are calling for.

JEFF CLEMENTS: Sure, Amy, and thanks for having me here. Glad to talk about that, Juan.

Free Speech for People is a nationwide organization calling for and working for a constitutional amendment. And the Constitution provides for that process under Article V of the Constitution. It’s been used twenty-seven times before. It’s how women got the right to vote. It’s how African Americans got the right to vote. It’s how we got due process applied to the states. It’s how we made our democracy, in many ways, is through the amendment process.

And now we’re called upon to do it again, with what the Supreme Court did in Citizens United, is essentially tell the people that, look, you know that corporate power is a problem, you know that corporate money is dominating our elections, our judiciaries, our legislatures, but there’s nothing you can do about it. If that’s true, as Bill Moyers and Bob Edgar and others have said on this show and elsewhere, we have a very serious problem with democracy in this country and a real question about whether we, as a democracy and a republic, will survive as a government of the people, rather than as a plutocracy. So, Free Speech for People is committed to overturning Citizens United and reversing that decision and having the American people, of all different political persuasions, come together to say to the Court, “Actually, yes, we can regulate corporate power in our elections and elsewhere. Yes, we can do that. And the way we do that is through a constitutional amendment.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: This whole issue of corporations being people — obviously, when it comes to criminal indictments, you rarely see a corporation criminally indicted when it violates the law. It’s always a civil complaint that ends up with the corporation paying a fine, yet it’s being considered a person from the point of view of free speech rights, but rarely is a corporation considered a person from the point of view of committing crimes. How — what’s the resonance, in terms of the general population, over this decision, from what you’ve been able to tell?

JEFF CLEMENTS: Oh, it’s absolutely clear that Americans, across — again, across all political persuasions, know that corporations aren’t people, that corporate money isn’t speech. If you look at the polling — and polling has been done several times — not only do three-quarters of the American people, 75 percent, disagree with Citizens United, and that includes Republicans, Independents, Democrats, but again, three-quarters fear that Congress won’t do enough to fix the problem, and would support a constitutional amendment to fix the problem. So it’s very clear that the commonsense notion that corporations don’t speak, that the people’s freedom of speech and the people’s not only opportunity, but duty, to govern in this country does not apply in the same way to corporate entities.

AMY GOODMAN: John Bonifaz, with us from Chicopee, People for the American Way just came out with a report on pro-corporate players in American politics, documenting the unprecedented sums of corporate money that are being injected into this campaign. Can you talk about some of the so-called citizens’ groups, like Rove’s groups? Can you talk about the Koch brothers, how they’re funneling money in, and this whole issue of secrecy?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Yes, and Citizens United certainly opened the floodgates to corporate money coming into the process in this cycle and beyond. But that report demonstrates that there are now these shadowy groups that have formed to receive this money in a secret way and to spend it, in the hundreds of millions of dollars, in our elections. American Crossroads is one of them, started by Karl Rove, spending upwards of $65-plus million in this cycle alone. Another organization, American Action Network, started by former Senator Norm Coleman, who lost to Senator Al Franken in Minnesota, again, using corporate dollars and other dollars upwards of $25-plus million. And the US Chamber of Commerce leading the way, with more than $75 million expected through the Chamber coming in in the form of attack ads around the country, funded by corporate sources.

The danger here, Amy and Juan, is that not only is there a threat to the integrity of our elections when we have corporate general treasury funds being spent by these artificial entities that are not people, but the danger is that this is really a corporate takeover of our democracy and our Constitution. Citizens United was not just a campaign finance case. It was a corporate rights case. In fact, it was an extreme extension of a corporate rights doctrine that has eroded the First Amendment for thirty years. And we need to return to the basic purpose of the First Amendment free speech and the Constitution, which is for people, not for corporations. And that’s why we need a constitutional amendment, a Twenty-Eighth Amendment, to restore the Constitution and democracy to the people.

JUAN GONZALEZ: John, I want to turn to clip from the documentary The Best Government Money Can Buy. This is Bruce Josten, executive vice president of government affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce. He talks about the role of the Chamber in politics.

BRUCE JOSTEN: A big part of our job here at the US Chamber — we’re a federation, so we have 3,000 Chambers of Commerce in this country downstream from us. We have 900 trade and professional associations as members, as well as hundreds of thousands of businesses, so we end up representing about three million different elements of the business community. The key for us is to gain multipliers from that federation, from those Chambers of Commerce, from those trade associations, and try and target the communications, so that if the member of Congress is receiving communications from in state, in their district, people that they know, people in fact that they ultimately depend on every election cycle to get elected, they will always pay more attention to constituents. I think members of both party want the involvement of this institution, because we are the largest business federation in the United States. They obviously would hope that we would find a way to support their agenda, endorse their legislation, encourage our members to communicate to the members of Congress to vote for that legislation. And obviously there are times when we can and will do that, when we agree, and there are times when we can’t and won’t do that, when we disagree.

JUAN GONZALEZ: John Bonifaz, your response to the Chamber’s analysis of its role?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, I think that the comment there is very clear and direct as to what they’re about: they’re about influencing our politics and our policy. But the problem is, is that when we have corporations that are artificial entities, that we’re supposed to rule over as we the people, coming in and using their general treasury funds to do so, we see a subversion of our democracy and self-government of, for and by the people.

Corporations do not think. They do not breathe. They do not have a conscience. In fact, they have state-based advantages that you and I as people do not have: limited liability, perpetual life, the ability to aggregate wealth and distribute wealth. And when they funnel this kind of money, general treasury funds of corporations, through organizations like the US Chamber of Commerce, they undermine fundamental self-government principles. And that’s what’s so dangerous, not just about the Citizens United ruling, but this entire corporate rights doctrine. We the people must rule, not we the corporations. And that’s why a critical movement must be moving forward in terms of a Twenty-Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and is working with others to do that. We must see that we the people govern in America, not we the corporations.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting, John, as you sit in a commercial TV studio in Chicopee, who’s benefiting here. I mean, who’s benefiting, to an unprecedented degree, are the local TV stations and networks all over this country. I mean, the amount of money they are getting — it used to be, you know, Iowa depended on this every four years, right? The campaign ads in Iowa for president, their TV stations. Now we’re talking about this all over the country. So it’s unlikely you’re going to have a really extensive discussion about this in these TV stations all over the country. What about that, what TV networks should be doing right now, the whole issue of free ads?

JOHN BONIFAZ: I couldn’t agree more, Amy. And I mean, that’s clearly why we need independent media, because the fact is, there is this windfall going to commercial media with these ads. And they benefit, no question about it. We need hard-hitting journalism that exposes where this money is coming from, the secrets that are occurring as a result of this spending. E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post recently talked about this as being — as akin to Watergate times with respect to the amount of secret money coming into our process, and it’s a danger to our democracy.

But just as much of a danger, to be clear, is the fact that this money is coming from the corporate source, which is not regulated, and, in fact, it is undermining our self-government. When corporations go into court and argue they have free speech rights to strike down environmental laws, healthcare laws, consumer rights laws, that’s just as much of a threat as when they spend the corporate general treasury funds in our elections. And that’s why we’ve got to reclaim our Constitution and democracy for the people.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Jeff, in terms of the practicalities of being able to get an amendment like this passed, what would have to be done at the state levels? How many states? Could it be done by referendum? How many — would it require an act of the legislature? And what is the vehicle or mechanism that you’re putting into place to be able to effect your goal?

JEFF CLEMENTS: We’re using the same mechanism, Juan, that Americans have used for two centuries to amend the Constitution, to make democracy work, and that’s Article V of the Constitution. And what that requires is a — certainly, a consensus that it needs to be done. And that is reflected in its requirement of two-thirds of Congress needs to pass the amendment. And then it goes to the states for ratification. And three-quarters of the states then need to ratify that amendment. So we expect, frankly, to be everywhere. We’re going to be in Washington. We’re going to be in every state in the union.

This is an issue that is — the American people care deeply about in every part of the country. Whether we disagree about many things, we don’t —- by and large, we don’t disagree that government, elections, the courts, are for we the people, not for corporations. So -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: But just to be clear, Congress would have to act first, before the states could consider it? Or could the states begin their own movement?

JEFF CLEMENTS: The states can absolutely begin their own movement, and we must begin that movement in the states. I think we know Congress will follow the people. And in the end, Congress will need to pass a bill by two-thirds’ majority. But the way we’re going to get that done is by people in the states passing state resolutions, people in their communities passing resolutions, people in towns and cities and states across the country passing resolutions, demanding that Congress send to the states for ratification the Free Speech for People amendment, which will overturn Citizens United. And then we’ll get that vote in Congress. And every one of these amendments, and, believe it or not, even basic propositions like women should have the same right to vote as men, that took thirty years to get that done and countless resolutions in states, countless bills in Congress. And that’s what we need to do now. Other amendments happened quicker, and we think this one will happen quicker.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s getting very extreme. So, you’re seeing a lot of revolt happening. I’m looking at a piece on AlterNet, “Local Chapters Revolt as US Chamber of Commerce Tries to Buy the Election for Republicans.” They’re quoting a member, the head of the Philadelphia chapter of the Chamber of Commerce, Christopher Pinto, the communications vice president, who says the Philadelphia chapter joined the US Chamber of Commerce to get free access to a piece of expensive software and doesn’t plan to renew next year. These local groups are getting furious that the Chamber is playing this role. And then you also have the ACLU. And I’ve seen when ACLU grassroots membership get furious at the leadership, saying, “Why are you supporting corporations having this voice and being able to spend unlimited amounts of money in these elections?” What do you make of the ACLU?

JEFF CLEMENTS: Well, let me first say about the Chamber, I think that is exactly right. And that belies the statement of the Chamber representative that you showed a few minutes ago, Amy, where they would like to present this image that the Chamber is just a representative of businesses and small chambers across the country. It just isn’t so. It’s a vehicle for the very largest corporations, the global transnational corporations, to funnel money —

AMY GOODMAN: Chevron, Goldman Sachs.

JEFF CLEMENTS: Exactly, Chevron, Goldman Sachs, AIG, others, Dow Chemical — to funnel money through, to hide their tracks and let the Chamber do the dirty work to dominate our democracy.

On the ACLU, it’s a very interesting issue. I’ve been an ACLU member for most of my life, back to high school. I think it’s very important that —

AMY GOODMAN: Card-carrying.

JEFF CLEMENTS: A card-carrying member of the ACLU. And believe me, I don’t agree with the ACLU national board’s decision not to support an amendment, not to work to overturn Citizens United. But we’ve got to remember, that vote of the ACLU board, that itself was divided. And I think the vote was 36 to 30. So the ACLU is having a conversation, and I’m confident that Americans, including the ACLU and elsewhere, are going to come around to work with us to bring democracy back to the people. And I think that will happen in chapters of the ACLU in states across the country, too. It’s a tough issue, but we’re going to work through this in the ACLU, and we, as Americans, are going to get this amendment done.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And quickly, is there any state in particular now that you see as the leading edge of this fight?

JEFF CLEMENTS: Well, there are many states, actually, that have gotten off the mark fast to do this. There’s a movement in Maine called the Maine Campaign to Reclaim Democracy. There’s a lot of activity in Colorado, California, Massachusetts, of course, where John and I are from. Down in Kentucky we’ve got a lot of interest. Just in almost every state. And the question is, where are we organizing? And that’s very important. I think people should start organizing now, because the sooner we get organized in every state, the sooner we’ll get this done. But there’s clearly interest in states that otherwise are very different. On this issue, they’re working on this.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us, Jeff Clements and John Bonifaz of Free Speech for People. This is Democracy Now!,, the War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’re going to look at hunger around the world and how countries and corporations are buying up land in large swaths of land in other countries.

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