Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fixing a “big lie”

Posted on Thu, Oct 20, 2011 at 4:00 AM

When Missoula voters receive their ballots in a few days, they will have an opportunity to express their opinion on one of the most consequential issues of our time: whether corporations should have the civil rights of human beings.

At the time that the U.S. Constitution was drafted, business organizations did not exist in the corporate form that is now so common. The current form evolved as a way to encourage private investment by limiting the liability of an investor. This was an ingenious innovation that undoubtedly spurred economic development throughout the world, to the benefit of all. The law recognized these entities as “persons” for the purpose of allowing them to initiate lawsuits and to be sued themselves. While the law recognized corporations as “artificial persons,” it did not automatically bestow upon corporations the rights of human beings.

Then a peculiar event occurred. In an obscure tax collection case brought by Santa Clara County against the Southern Pacific Railroad, one of the justices of the Supreme Court made an offhand reference to corporations being protected “as persons” under the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.

From this seed of thought, a body of law has grown that has extended many human civil rights to corporations. The most recent embodiment of this dangerous development is the Citizens United case. This case rejected a federal prohibition against “electioneering communication” by corporations. The court held that the prohibition was an unconstitutional infringement on the “free speech” rights of a corporation. The court reasoned that under the U.S. Constitution, all corporations have the same rights as human beings to speak, express and advocate their point of view on political issues, including election advocacy.

None of us wish to restrict the rights of all citizens to speak and be heard on political issues. The free expression of all ideas is essential if we are to be able to understand and evaluate which of these ideas make the most sense and which do not. But when the political discourse is dominated by only a few voices, then the rest cannot be heard. And as George Orwell observed, a “big lie” repeated over and over again, with great conviction, will sometimes be viewed as the truth.

The protection against the big lie comes from a robust and critical expression of contrary opinions. This is what we need in order to function well in a democracy. But when corporations with unrestricted advertising budgets enter the election process to advocate a point of view that benefits only the corporation, the opinions of human beings in this country are stifled. Our society is diminished by the result. This is why it is now so important to help our Supreme Court correct the error of its ways.

We can take an important step in this direction this fall. When you receive your ballot, vote to urge our state and federal legislators to amend the U. S. Constitution to provide that civil rights belong only to human beings, and that corporations are not human beings for the purpose of enjoying these rights.

Jon Ellingson

Ron Erickson

Jason Wiener

Cynthia Wolken

Missoula

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