After the controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United vs. F.E.C back in 2010, which found that corporate political spending is protected free speech, Mayor Stu Fraser said the work session was requested by some members of council to see if Telluride could make its voice heard calling for changes on a national level.
Geiger led the discussion by informing council on the legal details of the groundbreaking Citizens United case, first by defining corporate personhood as the status conferred upon corporations that permit them to enjoy certain legal rights and responsibilities similar to those of a natural person. Those rights, Geiger said, include the right to enforce contracts and sue in court (be sued as well) and the First Amendment right of free speech. Those rights do not include the right to vote.
Geiger gave a brief history of court findings that led to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. That decision, he said, confirmed that First Amendment protection extends to corporations and that provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (the McCain-Feingold Act) prohibiting corporate independent expenditures are viewed as an absolute ban on speech. The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling also stated that corporate political spending is protected free speech; the government lacks the power, and violates the First Amendment, with a ban on corporations speaking; and political speech is indispensible to decision making in a democracy. The court said this is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation rather than an individual.
From here, Geiger said, the only way to change corporations’ rights to freedom of speech (and political spending) would be a constitutional amendment, which can be done in several ways. An amendment to the Constitution can be proposed by a joint resolution, requiring a two-thirds supermajority in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. There is also a convention option, where two-thirds of the country’s state legislatures ask Congress to call a national convention to propose amendments. That option would subsequently require ratification by tat least 38 states.
Either way, Geiger said, constitutional amendments are rare.
“Generally speaking, there have only been 17 amendments since the Bill of Rights was passed in 1791,’ Geiger said. “There is a process, but it is not easy. It would be a way to reverse [Citizens United] though.”
As for the Town of Telluride’s role in all of this? Geiger said Telluride could join the many other local governments and organizations around the country that have made symbolic statements that indicate a Constitutional Amendment with regards to corporate personhood is needed.
In 2011, the citizens of Boulder, Colo. overwhelmingly passed a symbolic ordinance that asks for the abolishment of corporate personhood. That simple ordinance states, “Shall, the People of the City of Boulder, call for reclaiming democracy from the corrupting effects of corporate influence by amending the United States Constitution to establish that: 1. Only human beings, not corporations, are entitled to constitutional rights, and; 2. Money is not speech, and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.”
Some councilmembers liked the wording in the Boulder ordinance. “It’s nice and short and sweet,” Councilmember Bob Saunders said.
Council briefly discussed putting a similar question to voters in the next November election but decided the cost of a ballot question wouldn’t be worth it. Council then directed Geiger to draft an ordinance similar to Boulder’s for possible approval at the next council meeting.
“This is something I’ve been tracking for two years,” Councilmember Chris Myers said. “It is absolutely our right and responsibility as town council in Telluride to make a statement on this. This is how we feed back information to Washington. Currently, the message is being sent by many communities that corporations are not persons, and money is not free speech.”
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