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Matt Rothschild: Martin Luther King didn't confuse property with people, unlike Citizens United ruling

Matt Rothschild: Martin Luther King didn't confuse property with people, unlike Citizens United ruling

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This year, Martin Luther King Day falls on the same date, Jan. 21, on which the U.S. Supreme Court issued its notorious Citizens United decision nine years ago.

King’s writings leave little doubt where he would have stood on this ruling, which gave corporations and other groups the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections.

“Property is intended to serve life, and no matter how much we surround it with rights and respect, it has no personal being,” King wrote. “It is not man.”

But in the Citizens United decision and other related ones, the Supreme Court has insisted that corporations are people and have the free speech rights of people. “Political speech of corporations or other associations,” the court said in Citizens United, cannot “be treated differently under the First Amendment simply because such associations are not ‘natural persons.’ ”

The consequences of this decision have been dire for our democracy. Citizens United gave birth to SuperPACs — electioneering groups that can raise unlimited amounts of money from corporations and rich individuals, so long as the SuperPAC doesn’t coordinate with the candidates.

Election spending by corporations, SuperPACs, and billionaires has grown enormously in the last nine years, giving the rest of us little chance to get our voices heard.

Nationally in the last election cycle, the top 10 individuals who spent the most on candidates, political parties, PACs, SuperPACs, and other electioneering groups gave a staggering $435 million.

Here in Wisconsin, spending by outside groups broke a record for midterm elections, with $61 million being thrown around. (The previous record was $37 million in 2014.)

The rise of big money corrodes our democracy. The average citizen does not have an equal say with the billionaire or the corporate donor.

It also invites corruption.

And on top of that, it impedes equality, the cause to which King gave his life.

Poor people and people of color are vastly underrepresented in the donor ranks. As a result, our elected officials are not as responsive to them.

Campaign finance reform is a democracy issue and a civil rights issue.

As we honor King, we should note that his dream of democracy and equality for all is being thwarted by Citizens United and other Supreme Court decisions that have placed corporations on an equal plane with flesh-and-blood individuals.

King recognized this fallacy.

And 144 communities in Wisconsin have recognized it, too, passing referendums or resolutions urging our elected officials to amend the U.S. Constitution to proclaim, once and for all, that corporations aren’t persons and money isn’t speech.

Now it’s time for the state, as a whole, to recognize it.

On Tuesday, Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, and Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, will be introducing resolutions to allow for a statewide advisory referendum on this issue. That referendum would ask the citizens of Wisconsin whether we should amend the U.S. Constitution to declare that only flesh-and-blood human beings have constitutional rights.

Passing such an amendment would go a long way toward realizing King’s dream.

Rothschild is executive director of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks money in state politics:


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