Two Referenda on November Ballot

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Occupy CU Referendum on Citizens United and Corporate Personhood to Appear on Champaign and Urbana Ballots

Occupy CU demonstrated near the Federal Courthouse in Urbana as part of the national call to “occupy the courts” in opposition to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision on January 20, 2012. The group of 50, braving an outdoor temperature not nearly equal that number, symbolically took their message a block north of the Courthouse to Main Street.

Due to that organization’s efforts, the call to overturn Citizens United and end corporate personhood are now issues “Main Street” can share their opinion regarding on the November ballot. And Main Street has plenty of reason to challenge the Court’s decision.

In comparison to 2008, the 2012 election has seen more than four times as much money spent by outside groups on political campaigns. This is due to the Citizens United decision, which essentially claimed corporate campaign donations were free speech, eliminating a $5,000 limit on donations made by political action committees (PACs). This is when Super PACs were born.

While before Citizens United individuals could spend unlimited amounts of money in support or opposition to political campaigns, they often refrained from doing so because they had to disclose their name on the advertisments and materials the donation generated. Because of this, they donated to PACs, yet those often reached their $5,000 limit. The limit, and challenge of operating multiple PACs, effectively operated as an obstacle.

Further, corporations were banned from donating to PACs, which is no longer the case.

Thus, you see the quadrupling of political spending.

Even though donors do not have to be disclosed, there is further reason to believe this is a coup by the 1%. To give an idea of who is spending this money, 72 percent of political advertising spending by outside groups in our last federal election, in 2010, came from sources that were prohibited from spending money in 2006, and the total amount spent by groups which do not have to disclose their donors rose from 1 percent to 47 percent in those years.

To counter this coup, Occupy CU affiliated with the national Move to Amend campaign, bringing a referendum question that challenges the very notion of corporate personhood to successful passage at the City of Champaign and Cunningham township meetings in April.

The Supreme Court’s reasoning in Citizens United v the FEC rested on the idea that corporations have the same rights as people, and that their money is a form of protected free speech. This is based on a much older Supreme Court decision, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, that stated corporations had legal rights like those of an individual.

That ruling, made in 1886, is open to interpretation, but it would require a much more progressive Supreme Court and an organized people’s movement to overturn it. It can also be challenged with an amendment. Organizing for an anti-corporate personhood amendment and building knowledge of the issue of corporate personhood within a people’s movement can be done simultaneously, as Occupy has demonstrated.

With pressure from the grassroots, Galesburg, IL passed a resolution against Citizens United, Northfield, IL has passed a citizens initiative, and even Chicago has passed a resolution in oppostion to the decision. There are more votes to come this November.

Be sure to get out and vote “yes” here in Champaign-Urbana. The more victories we have on the local level, the greater our ability to have the state of Illinois join in challenging corporate control of our democracy.

If you support the referendum item, please contact your senator and representative and let them know to pay attention to the vote. The few minutes it takes to do so will likely save you from many more times the minutes lost having to listen to rhetoric-based ads brought to you by political operatives or billionaire brothers in the future.

The referendum:

The U.S. Supreme Court held, in ‘Citizens United v. FEC’, that corporations have the rights of real human citizens and are entitled to spend unlimited amounts of money in support of political campaigns. To undo that decision, the people of the City of Champaign Township/Cunningham Township support an Amendment to the United States Constitution to establish that:

1. A corporation does not have the same rights as an actual person, and

2. Money is not speech and, therefore, regulating political spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech.

We further request that our city, state and federal representatives enact resolutions and legislation to advance the two positions proposed as part of the Amendment, with reference to the need for an Amendment.

(A “Yes” vote denotes agreement).

Local Free Speech

In the last issue we wrote about how political speech is facing a squeeze. On the one hand we’re swamped by mindless attack ads, mostly paid for by the ultra-rich. On the other hand, simple low-cost person-to-person communication channels such as petitioning and leafleting are becoming less practical. The main reason is that people stay in their cars until they’re in the parking lots of big stores and malls, so it’s hard to reach many pedestrians  on public space. Although dealing with the huge superpacs requires a national effort, we can do a lot to fix the barriers to free speech locally.

Consider a typical situation. Perhaps a war is about to start, based on false claims. You’d like to hand out some leaflets exposing the lies. Perhaps you can do so on the sidewalks outside the Urbana Civic Center. Unfortunately almost no one comes by. Meanwhile you can see a steady flow of people through the parking lot with Schnucks and other retailers. You can’t leaflet there because the parking lot is nominally private property, regardless of how many public incentives were used to get it built. In Champaign, the situation at Market Place Mall is more extreme.

We can fix that. California (and some other states) have shown that it’s perfectly possible to require large stores and malls to allow non-disruptive political petitioning and leafleting. Needless to say, such commercial institutions continue to thrive there. In California, that free-speech rule is due to a longstanding court decision (“Pruneyard”)  based on the state constitution. Here, we could accomplish the same thing via local legislation.

One objection I’ve heard is that the Web allows a lot of easy communication, so the old person-to-person methods aren’t needed. In practice, we know that most Web communications don’t cross barriers between different groups, or typically do so via crude insults.  There’s no substitute for face-to-face contact, which promotes a little more mutual respect and some real exchange of views both ways. In part, that’s precisely because it takes effort to go out in public, unlike adding another 1000 names to a spam list.

The bigger concern we’ve heard is that merchants would have to put up with obnoxious behavior that could hurt their businesses. That hasn’t been a problem in other places with similar rules. The key point is that the detailed rules would be written by the city councils. Those councils are not going to ignore legitimate concerns from the affected businesses. Blocking passages, yelling, repeatedly bugging people who don’t want to talk, etc. would obviously not be allowed in these privately-owned spaces. Simple petitioning and leafleting, standing near but not in the flow of people, would be allowed.

Some libertarians have offered more abstract arguments about the absolute sanctity of private property. In practice, the big developments usually get special tax breaks and other government assistance. It seems hypocritical to then claim to have no obligations to general public concerns, such as maintaining the same level of free-speech that we had when separate stores directly facing public sidewalks.

We should be prepared, of course, for the likelihood that people using there free-speech rights will often not agree with us. Sometimes we’ll hate what they have to say. That’s part of building a lively political community.

Addendum: A possible complication has arisen, in that the County Clerk says that referenda are to be phrased as questions starting with “shall”, and ours aren’t. We’re hoping that this gets treated as a simple matter of democracy, not as a tricky game with rules from Jeopardy. As we go to press, it appears likely that the referenda will appear, perhaps prefaced with “Shall the following referendum be adopted?”, but we aren’t sure yet. A “Yes” vote will still be pro-referendum.

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