Vermonters protest Citizen United outside the statehouse in Montpelier.
“Hi. I’m Jerry. I’m a person,” said Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream, as he introduced himself to the crowd with an ingratiating smile. “Ben and Jerry’s Homemade Ice cream: not a person.” Everybody chuckled.
A crowd at the Montpelier statehouse in Vermont rang in the second anniversary of Citizens United
, a 2010 Supreme Court decision recognizing that corporations have free-speech rights under the First Amendment, with a rally on Friday. Retirees and college students, elected representatives, advocacy and business leaders, and ice-cream titan Greenfield gathered to call for a constitutional amendment repealing Citizens United
and abolishing corporate personhood. The gathering was part of a series of events around the nation put on by groups like Public Citizen
, Move to Amend
, and others that are opposed to Citizens United
. But the Montpelier rally had its own, well, flavor.
Vermont is no stranger to direct democracy: Every year, on the first Tuesday in March, Vermonters attend town meetings where they elect local officials, vote on budgets, and discuss anything related to civic affairs. It’s a state holiday—and a tradition that dates back to 1633. It’s the place that produced Howard Dean. The state boasts a vocal secessionist movement. So it fits that a number of Vermonters were upset with the Citizens United ruling.
“I’m not surprised at Vermont’s leadership on this issue,” said Aquene Freechild, a senior organizer with Public Citizen, as she kicked off the rally. “This place is such an interesting laboratory for democracy.”
Back in December, Senator Bernie Sanders
proposed an amendment that would “expressly exclude for-profit corporations from the rights given to natural persons by the Constitution of the United States” and limit corporations’ capacity to contribute to elections.
State Senator Ginny Lyons has made it her mission to advance the amendment. “The economic, environmental, and social landscape will be forever changed if we let corporate influence continue in the way Citizens United allows,” she told Friday’s crowd.
But it’s a long road to actually passing an amendment. The first step: getting it onto the ballot at town meetings. That requires a petition with signatures from 5 percent of the electorate. And that requires knocking on doors—which in the dead of winter isn’t an easy task.
“But lookit,” Lyons said with firm maternal authority, urging activists to carry on. “When people work together, that is what our democracy is about. I can’t wait for town meeting.”
Sitting to my right at the rally was David Smith, a 71-year-old retired innkeeper from Greensboro, Vermont. I asked him why he’d come to the rally. “Freedom,” he stated simply. “What do you mean?” I pressed. “We need corporations not to be treated as persons, we need money not to be equated with votes, we need to have the legislature of the state of Vermont petition the states to amend this Constitution so that we will be free.” I later learned that Smith is not just an innkeeper. He was Vermont’s first full-time public defender in the 1970s.
Robin Lloyd, head of the Vermont branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, was among many representatives of local advocacy groups to address the crowd. “We can laugh at the image of millionaires—billionaires really—lining up behind these different candidates who are all very pro-business, but this issue is really very serious,” she said. “The issue of corporate personhood is really a life-and-death struggle for the future of planet Earth.”
Life-and-death struggle or no, corporate personhood has a long legal precedent. It’s been on the books since 1886, when the Supreme Court ruled in the Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company case that corporations be extended 14th Amendment rights, or equal rights under the law. And corporations have been extended constitutional rights in other cases since.
“I think that one has to be a little careful of the ‘Citizens United is the root of all evil’ view,” says Rick Pildes, a constitutional law professor at New York University. “I think there are some misunderstandings out there.” He points out that that super PAC spending is attributable to the Buckley v. Valeo case in 1976. “If you’re concerned with the super PAC and the ability of these individuals to put $5 million into someone’s super PAC to support them, your grievance is not with Citizens United—its with Buckley v. Valeo,” Pildes says. “That’s important because people ought to be shooting at the right target.”
But the target may have moved. Philip Bobbitt, author of Constitutional Fate: Theory of the Constitution, says that Citizens United is part of a broad movement across developed countries to “use markets as shadow elections.” For a long time,” Bobbit says, “we thought if you can run a successful campaign, you can be a successful governor. Now you’re getting to see a new element. We use the market to short-circuit that process. If you can raise an awful lot of money and win media-centric elections, a few ones, that’s true all across the board.”
Regarding Sanders’s proposed amendment, Bobbit says, “My intuitive guess is that although I’m very sympathetic to campaign-finance rule, I think this is going to be a hard one.”
Campaign-finance disclosure is the most important problem to fix, according to Jennifer Taub, a professor at Vermont Law School who writes about corporate governance. Stockholders don’t know, she says, if money from the corporations they’ve invested in is being used to support particular candidates. “If money is speech, shouldn’t I find out if my money is being used to shout me down?” she says.
State Senator Lyons waved $50 in the air as the rally came to a close. “It ain’t talkin’," someone called out. “Oh, I forgot,” Lyons said, feigning surprise, as the room burst out laughing. “Money’s not speech.”
The crowd migrated outside the statehouse for a few cold minutes of public protest. “End corporate rule—hey! End corporate rule—hey!” they chanted. But even the shouting was positive. The group seemed charged with energy, ready to keep knocking on doors and advancing the amendment to the first of many hurdles, even though chances of the amendment passing are, as Bobbit points out, more than slim. “This is the beginning,” Lyons said, “of something very important in our country.”