'We the People' means people

Posted: Friday, February 26, 2010

Legislation currently under consideration in Juneau would plug holes punched open by the U.S. Supreme Court with its recent ruling that corporations, unions and other narrow interest groups are now, somehow, equal to human beings -- at least in the arena of politics.

Lawmakers in other states are doing the same, as are some of our representatives in Congress.

The court's 5-4 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission last month basically says that corporations, unions and other interest groups have the same rights to political free speech as individual U.S. citizens, including the right to put their money where their political philosophy is.

Corporations and other entities already spend heavily on public opinion campaigns. The concern with the court ruling is that corporations, unions and other groups may exercise their newly acknowledged freedoms in other newfound ways, like promoting individual candidates for elected office.

Lawmakers are scrambling to beef up campaign disclosure laws and insure that corporations, unions and other groups clearly identify themselves in campaign ads and wherever those organizations spend money. But a central question lies at the root of this issue -- since when is a corporation or a labor organization the same thing as a human being?

That's essentially what the Supreme Court said in its ruling.

"If the First Amendment has any force," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, "it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech."

On first reading, the reasoning seems to make sense.

But take this a bit further. What are corporations but entities created for a single purpose -- to produce a profit. What are unions but entities created for a single purpose -- to enrich and protect their members, just their members. There are good reasons for these entities to have a legal existence. But they shouldn't have the same say when we make laws or elect people to govern.

People make laws. And those laws are the result of personal experience (oftentimes painful), reason, morals, ethics -- all the traits that can only be found in human beings.

How can a legal entity like a corporation or a labor union -- or any special interest group, for that matter -- exhibit the same traits and, thus, be an equal to a human being?

What, for example, would be the moral position of a corporation that makes contraception devices on the issue of abortion? Where would a labor union stand ethically on the issue of school vouchers? And what would the motivation for their stands other than to satisfy their narrow purposes?

As Justice John Stevens wrote in his dissent on the decision: "In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office."

The fact is that these entities are not us. They are a human-made construct of narrow definition. Human beings are the result of individual heritage, upbringing, schooling, life experience. We are complex, contradictory and emotional. We are what makes a democratic society so unwieldy and, and so wonderful, all at the same time.

To say that Proctor and Gamble, Exxon, the IBEW or the International Brotherhood of Teamsters are our equals is nonsensical -- one could even say offensive.

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