MURPHY: Locals look to organize movement to abolish corporate personhood

February 23, 2010
Myles Murphy

A recent Supreme Court decision extending the rights of corporations has some locals and grassroots organizers concerned.

"There's a little buzz around the country about this Supreme Court decision," said Wes Brain of Southern Oregon Jobs for Justice, one of the organizers of a public meeting Thursday billed as a chance for Ashlanders to "join the movement to abolish corporate personhood" in the wake of the decision.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled a lower court's decision not to allow advertising and distribution of a 90-minute movie criticizing Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign. Before being overturned, an earlier court said the movie must be regulated like a campaign ad.

When the issue came to the Supreme Court, a 5-4 decision upheld the right of the group Citizens United to spend money in that way and not be limited by campaign finance rules. The group, according to the court, should be treated like a person, with an individual's rights to spend money during public debate.

For the government to legislate away some of a corporation's right to spend money during political campaigns amounted to censorship, according to the written decision.

"The censorship we now confront is vast in its reach," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his explanation of the opinion.

For others, granting corporations rights equal to those of individuals creates an uneven playing field in politics because of the large amounts of money corporations are able to collect and distribute.

Thursday's event features two well-known community activists on the national scene, Riki Ott and David Cobb, as facilitators.

Ott is an Alaskan who experienced the aftereffects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and has become an outspoken advocate of community activism to prevent or mitigate environmental disasters. She has written "Sound Truth and Corporate Myth$: The Legacy of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill" and "Not One Drop: Promises, Betrayal, and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill."

David Cobb ran for president of the United States with the Green Party in 2004 after Ralph Nader announced he would not be running. Cobb earned just under 1 percent of the popular vote, the sixth most votes garnered by national candidates in that election. Soon after, Cobb challenged the Ohio vote count, which, after a recount, revealed that George Bush had narrowly defeated John Kerry by about 119,000 votes.

For the past 15 years, Cobb has been organizing people to limit the rights of corporations to spend money on political campaigns. He believes his work to be largely responsible for the phrase "corporate personhood" popping into popular culture.

"What we object to is that a corporation can claim the same inherent inalienable rights of a person," Cobb said. "... To allow concentrated capital to claim constitutional rights is to pervert the idea of democracy. The Citizens United case basically legalizes corporate bribery. They still can't write a direct check to a candidate, but they can spend an unlimited amount of money supporting or opposing candidates."

Cobb lives in Humbolt County, California, and his group was instrumental in pushing through a resolution in Arcata, Calif., declaring corporate personhood "illegitimate and undemocratic."

He believes such actions on a local level, even in small towns such as Arcata or Ashland, are not simply tilting at windmills.

"The large-scale economics have direct impact on the local level," he said.

Cobb cited the health care crisis, the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan and climate change as examples of how the influence of large corporations can outweigh the desires of the electorate.

"There is not really democratic control over the institutions that rule our life," he said.

Southern Oregon University history professor Jay Mullen has given the subject some thought, particularly since the Supreme Court decision.

Mullen believes the original intent of the Constitution was not that corporations be treated as persons under the law. He traced the legal origin of the "personhood" idea back to an 1886 Supreme Court decision that favored a railroad company over Santa Clara County, California, and an explanatory note on the decision added by a court clerk that was later approved by a Supreme Court judge which labeled a corporation a person. After that, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments went on to define a person and a person's rights more clearly. Having previously been defined as a person, corporation's rights were similarly expanded.

"I'm surprised no one has challenged this," Mullen said. Then, referring to the wording of the amendments, added, "A corporation is not born, nor was it naturalized in the United States."

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This article originally appeared in the Ashland Daily Tidings