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'We the People' versus 'We the Corporation': Sentiment Builds for Banning Corporate Personhood, But Tough Road Ahead.

How far should a constitutional amendment go to roll back corporate rights? And is it possible?

Bill of Rights


Across the country, momentum has been building for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution declaring that the democratic rights and freedoms granted to people do not apply to corporations and corporate entities.

In November alone, local voters in ColoradoMontanaMaineWisconsin and California passed various resolutions to ban corporate personhood. Seven bills have been introduced in the current Congress, including four this month—including amendment proposals. Public interest groups have been gathering petition signatures, all with an eye to the two-year anniversary of a Supreme Court ruling, known as Citizens United, which granted significant new political powers to corporations by ending a century-old prohibition on directly spending money from their corporate treasuries for political campaigns.

A constitutional amendment proposed by Congress must pass House and Senate chambers with two-thirds majorities and then be ratified by three-fourths of the states. The last amendment, passed in 1992, concerned congressional pay and was proposed in 1789. The 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18, passed in 1971, after tens of thousands of youths that age died in Vietnam but could not vote. Though the political equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest, supporters of an amendment to reverse or reign in corporate constitutional rights are not deterred.

“We are facing a crisis in American democracy today,” said John Bonifaz, co-founder and director of Free Speech for People, who has been involved with various proposals in Congress. “The question is whether it is ‘We the people’ or ‘We the corporations.’ The response to that crisis has to be a bold vision that will restore democracy to the people. Constitutional amendment fights are the very kind of fights that return us to the basic principles of what we are as a nation.”

The effort to restrain the power of corporations by targeting American democracy's foundational document—the Constitution—is not without critics or controversy, even in progressive circles. There are varying proposed amendments, based on smaller and larger reform visions. There are fears that undoing corporate powers entrenched in federal and state law would harm non-profits and labor unions, and cause other unintended effects. However, what is undeniable is there is broad support—not just in Occupy Wall Street protests but among middle-class Americans as evidenced by mainstream media polls—for tangible steps to restoring the balance of power between big business and individual citizens.

“If we were able to get the big money out of politics, what more would you really want to do?” non-profit lawyer Greg Colvin asked.

Which Problem? Which Solution?

There are two threads among the various amendment proposals. The narrower approach, which  Colvin embraces, seeks to address two U.S. Supreme Court rulings, 35 years apart. One allowed for unlimited campaign spending and the other granted excessive power to corporate money in elections.

The first of those rulings, Buckley v. Valeo, said spending money in campaigns is speech protected by the First Amendment. Though Buckley said donations to candidates could be regulated, it struck down limits on campaign spending by candidates and by independent groups – limits passed by Congress in the wake of the Watergate scandal. 

The second ruling, Citizens United, voided a 2002 reform that was Congress’ most recent effort to address the problems of our campaign finance system, but went much further to grant constitutional rights to corporations. It said that not only can corporations spend unlimited sums in elections, but restricting such spending would create “a disadvantaged person or class.”

In essence, the Supreme Court in Citizens United , said that corporations have explicit First Amendment protections—the same rights and liberties as citizens. And those speech rights do not just apply to political campaigns. There is ongoing litigation in many federal and state courts where corporations are fighting government regulation by saying they are unconstitutionally being forced to speak by putting warnings on their products.