At the March 21 City Council meeting, Mayor Edna Jackson and six aldermen voted in favor of adopting a resolution stating that corporations are not afforded the same right to free speech as individuals under the First Amendment. District 6 Alderman Tony Thomas and District 4 alderwoman Mary Ellen Sprague voted against the amendment.
The resolution also includes support for legislative action in its 2013-14 programming, “specifically so that the expenditure of corporate money to influence the electoral process is no longer a form of constitutionally protected speech.”
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission granted corporations the right to contribute unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns.
The potential for corporate interests to sway the American electoral process in ways that don’t necessarily represent the public interest has infuriated voters. According to polls, 80 percent of Americans oppose the Citizen United ruling, a statistic consistent across party affiliations.
“Basically, the Supreme Court ruled that money is the same as speech and that corporations are people,” says Vicky Weeks, an organizational development consultant who helped bring the resolution to the council’s agenda.
“In effect, corporations can drown out any impact individual can have in politics. And that’s just wrong. This is a transpartisan issue.”
Savannah joins New York, Los Angeles, Boulder and over 300 other cities in passing similar resolutions. Montana, California and Rhode Island are among 12 state legislatures that have voted to repeal the Supreme Court ruling, and North Carolina and West Virginia have bills in the hopper calling on Congress to limit money in politics.
“Before Citizens United came down, corporations were already spending billions of dollars lobbying, running ‘issue ads,’ launching political action committees and soliciting PAC contributions,” wrote Maryland Senator and American University law professor in The Nation last September.
“Moreover, CEOs, top executives and board directors…have always contributed robustly to candidates. But there was one crucial thing that CEOs could not do before Citizens United: Reach into their corporate treasuries to bankroll campaigns promoting or opposing the election of candidates for Congress or president.”
In other words, under Citizens United, multinational corporations tied to the pharmaceutical, banking, tobacco, insurance and telecommunications industries can influence the outcomes of elections by vastly outspending their favorite candidates’ opponents.
Weeks says national groups like Public Citizen and Move to Amend have mounted the country-wide campaign against Citizens United by engaging people at the local level. Weeks is a member of the local chapter of the Coffee Party, which includes in its platform the removal of corporate interests from politics. The group has been galvanizing support to overturn Citizens United for the past year and a half.
“We collected 1200 signatures and brought it to the Savannah city council to put on its agenda. Other cities have put referendums on the ballot and let the voters choose,” she explains. “The point is to bring on board population centers and create a block of support.”
The next step is to present resolutions on the agendas of Richmond Hill, Garden City and Brunswick city councils. Weeks has been tapped to help put a resolution in front of the city of Atlanta, and organizers are focused on bringing it to the Georgia Assembly.
“Members of Congress may be allowed to accept money from corporations for their campaigns, but we want them to remember who actually voted them in,” she says. “You’d say ‘no’ to this resolution to your peril, I’d think.”