Oberlin City Council Approves Resolution to Rescind Corporate Personhood


Rachel Grossman

The Oberlin City Council approved a resolution Tuesday night reccomending a constitutional amendment that would rescind the corporate personhood granted in the 2010 Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling.

Rosemary Boeglin, News Editor

In 2010, the United States Supreme Court made a landmark decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission extending First Amendment rights to corporations and unions by prohibiting the government from restricting political expenditures by these organizations. A number of municipalities and even states have proposed resolutions to reject the decision and recommend an amendment to the United States Constitution to rescind corporate personhood. On Tuesday, the City of Oberlin became the most recent addition to the list of those opposed.

The Oberlin City Council approved a resolution Tuesday night reccomending a constitutional amendment that would rescind the corporate personhood granted in the 2010 Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling.

Willy Elman, College senior, has been working with Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest group, on local efforts such as the one recently passed in Oberlin. Elman said he was interested in gaining momentum on a resolution to bring to the Oberlin City Council, but when he returned from Winter Term he discovered that two citizens had already introduced a resolution on behalf of local community groups, namely Community Peace Builders and Veterans for Peace. Elman said he wanted to bring this resolution to the attention of the City Council due to his belief in active citizen-based politics and the importance of clarifying free speech as a right of citizens, not corporations.

“Historically, states and Congress have regulated the amount of money that can be given to political campaigns. In 2010, the Supreme Court struck down a law that forbid corporations from spending independently of political campaigns. The court’s reasoning was that spending money for political purposes is a protected form of speech,” Elman said. “This is clearly a gross misapplication of the First Amendment.”

The Oberlin College Democrats officially endorsed the resolution at their general interest meeting last week. Jesse Vogel, College sophomore and co-chair of the Oberlin College Democrats, said that though the resolution is not legally binding, it is still a politically significant gesture.

“This is something that’s been tried across the country, and I think that it is a kind of symbolic act, but at this point in the battle, that’s what we need,” Vogel said. “We need lots of symbolic acts to show Congress and the courts that the public, the people of America, think that the idea that corporations are people and should have all the same rights is ludicrous.”

According to a February 2010 ABC-Washington Post poll, the majority of those surveyed reached a similar conclusion. Of the 80 percent who were opposed to the Citizens United ruling, 65 percent were strongly opposed and 72 percent supported “an effort by Congress to reinstate limits on corporate and union spending on election campaigns.”

The Citizens United decision, which split the Supreme Court 5–4, applies to spending by corporations, nonprofit corporations and unions on electioneering communications — defined as broadcast, cable or satellite communication that mentions a candidate within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary. Though some have argued this decision will increase transparency in the election process and make it more competitive, other concerns with the decision remain. Another primary contention with the bill is that it, in effect, equates free speech with the right to spend unlimited amounts of money toward campaigns.

“When you apply freedom of speech as interpreted as the right to give unlimited money to a campaign, you’re essentially drowning out the voices of millions of citizens to determine a political platform, interpret a message on how an issue is framed, where the place is for discussion, and debate and articulation of values. It’s a political process completely dominated by corporate interests,” said Elman.

Gil Miranda, Oberlin emeritus Music professor and member of Community Peace Builders, worked to draft the resolution and spoke on its behalf at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. Miranda’s expressed concern about the Supreme Court decision is primarily its extension of rights to corporations that he considers rightly reserved to citizens, or, more succinctly, the issue of corporate personhood.

“When you have a corporation, who is the natural person? The shareholders, the directors? [A corporation] does not have a natural personality like we have. Corporations have some constitutional rights, but they are different, because unlike us, they have a finality, a purpose,” Miranda said.

Elman said the purpose of passing resolutions such as these at the municipal level is to send a clear message to Congress.

“We’re doing this at the local level because the only way to solve it is to pass a constitutional amendment, which is a long and difficult process. And it will not start in federal Congress. The idea is to build enough grassroots support to pressure local and hopefully state resolutions, eventually forcing Congress to act.”

Citizens United has paved the way for the development of independent expenditure political action committees, dubbed “super PACs,” that may accept unlimited contributions from individuals, unions and corporations in order to then make independent expenditures. In 2011, 22 donors funded the money for half of all super PAC budgets, totaling $67 million, and the Wesleyan Media Project reported that interest-group sponsored advertising increased by 1600 percent between the 2008 election season and the 2012 election season.

“To me, it’s not about overthrowing capitalism; it’s about saying capitalism has its place in democracy, but ultimately democracy needs to determine where that place is and not the other way around,” Elman said.

Miranda said that characterizing the passage of resolutions such as these at local levels as purely symbolic trivializes their importance. Though not legally binding, Miranda insists that these resolutions represent a citizen’s appropriate exercising of First Amendment rights.

“It’s not symbolic to the extent that opinion is not symbolic. As citizens, the most important contribution that we can give to the state is the exercise of free speech. It’s not binding, but it’s not symbolic.”

At the City Council meeting, the primary contention with the Citizens United decision, as verbalized most explicitly by Miranda and Elman, who both spoke on behalf of the resolution, was the question of personhood.

“The major objection is that in corporations, who is the person? A corporation is a goal. It’s not a person. Let us look at the first corporation in the world: the state. If we were going to give the protection afforded to persons to all corporations, they would be able to vote. A city could vote, the state, they wouldn’t need our votes, because the state could vote. They would decide for us. Corporations are the material manifestation of our goals. They should serve us; they should not be our tyrants,” said Miranda.

Vogel said he is concerned that citizens, and students in particular, are becoming disillusioned with the political process, and that the passage of court decisions, such as Citizens United, only further discourages the individual from participating in the political system.

“I think students are the future of the country and are pitted against these big corporate interests. It’s the people, the students and the workers against corporations. We know that the country is not on the right track when corporate interests rule it.”