Berkeley community members protest against corporations’ rights

Ashley Chen/Staff
The "Occupella" group performs during a rally on the steps of city hall in opposition to Citizens United.

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City officials and Berkeley residents turned out for a Tuesday night rally supporting a constitutional amendment to overturn a 2010 Citizens United decision involving corporate personhood.

The rally, which took place at Old City Hall in Downtown Berkeley, was attended by about 100 people including Berkeley City Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Max Anderson and members from the Northern California Move to Amend movement, the main group involved in organizing the rally.

Anderson spoke briefly at the rally against the idea of corporate personhood and its effect on the voting public.

“We need to reaffirm our commitment to ending this notion that corporations are people. Corporations have a commitment to greed and most of their activities … are anti-human,” Anderson said.  “Citizens United came upon us like a ton of bricks and has now distorted the body politics and your democratic rights because money is trumping people.”

The 2010 Citizens United case  involved a federal campaign finance law, 2 U.S.C. sec. 441b, which prohibits both corporations and unions from using their funds on communication that supports or opposes a candidate for federal office.  Citizens United, a conservative non-profit corporation, sued the Federal Election Commission, arguing that the law was unconstitutional as applied to the documentary, Hillary, they had released in 2008.

The Supreme Court decision held in a 5-4 vote that Section 441b of the campaign finance law “on its face” violated the First Amendment. Regarding the court’s decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that in the court’s opinion, it considered Section 441b’s validity out of judicial responsibility. Otherwise, according to Kennedy, “the substantial nationwide chilling effect” of Section 441b would continue.

“Citizens United actually restricts the speech of natural persons because we can’t possibly compete with the corporations, and therefore they shut us up with their money,” said Susan Harman, the rally’s organizer and a Move to Amend member.

Daniel Raff, a member of Move to Amend, said the movement hopes to amend the constitution and reverse corporate personhood prior to the 1886 decision of Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. The decision in this case granted constitutional protections to corporations and set a future foundation for laws regarding corporate personhood.

William Turner, a UC Berkeley professor who teaches a Media Studies class called Freedom of Speech and the Press, said in an op-ed written on truth-out.org, that an unmentioned point by both opposers and supporters of the Citizens United decision is how unthinkable it would be for corporations to be without First Amendment rights and be subjected to “unbridled government censorship.”

“If the (proposed Move to Amend) amendment were adopted, the New York Times no longer has (first) amendment rights,” Turner said in an email.