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January 3, 2012

Amending the Constitution to Overturn Citizens United

In more than 200 years, the United States Constitution has been amended just twenty-seven times. The primary reason for this is not hard to fathom: it is almost fantastically difficult to amend the Constitution. A proposal must secure the approval of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and three-quarters of the states before we can say the Constitution has been amended. To have a chance, then, any serious proposal must have a great deal of sustained popular support.

One proposal that appears to have that kind of support is an amendment that would overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which a majority of the Court lifted certain restrictions on corporate political speech. As Jeff Clements details in his new book, Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It, the proposed amendment would make clear that the terms “people,” “person” and “citizen” in the Constitution do not include corporations or limited liability companies established here or abroad—thus eliminating the premise underlying Citizens United, that the speech of corporate entities is as valuable under the First Amendment as that of flesh-and-blood human beings.

In the book and his blog, Clement captures the outrage people (actual people, not corporations) feel toward Citizens United. To be fair, there is a plausible First Amendment rationale for the Court’s decision: one goal of the freedom of speech is to promote a diversity of views and wealth of information in the marketplace of ideas. The problem is, that is not the only goal of the Amendment, and that goal is in any event undermined when certain speakers may flood the market with their particular views on a variety of issues.

Further, in its focus on maximizing the amount of speech in the marketplace, the Citizens United court failed to appreciate that only flesh-and-blood humans will suffer the consequences of lawmaking in a tangible way. Corporate interests might, for example, favor the wide use of technologies that can track our activities, such as automobile smart passes and GPS software, and speak through contributions to officials who would adopt these technologies. But no corporate entity will ever have to deal with any of the real-world consequences of that adoption, such as the potential for undermining individual privacy interests.

Perhaps more critically, Citizens United is wrongheaded because it suggests that the product of thought—the ideas that end up in the marketplace—is somehow disconnected from its source. If the premise of Citizens United is correct, whether speech is generated by humans, corporate public relations flacks, or a computer programmed to spit out random policy proposals, makes no difference—it’s all the same. But that can’t be right: humans have an inherent dignity that neither corporations nor computers possess, and the notion that their speech is worth the same as ours ultimately demeans us in a fundamental way.

Lawrence Friedman

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