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Santa Cruz Activists Aim to Inspire Constitutional Amendment With a Local Vote

Rowan Moore Gerety
Credit Rowan Moore Gerety
Santa Cruz County Clerk Gail Pellerin (left) leafs through the petitions to get a page count after they were handed in.
Credit Rowan Moore Gerety
Co-founders Harvey Dosik and Chris Finnie double check the count as they prepare to submit petitions for a Santa Cruz County ballot measure on corporate personhood.

Constitutional amendments don’t happen very often: there have been three in the last fifty years. But activists around the country are circulating petitions in support of a new amendment. This one is designed to overrule Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and stem the tide of money in politics, and voters in Santa Cruz may soon have a chance to weigh in.

On Tuesday, Chris Finnie and Harvey Dosik came to the Santa Cruz County Elections Department with a box full of yellow papers. In it were more than 10,000 signatures for a ballot measure saying that “Corporations are not people and money is not free speech.”

Dosik and Finnie are co-founders of the Santa Cruz chapter of “Move to Amend,” a national organization that has led similar drives from Massachusetts to Arizona. A local ballot measure won’t affect the federal constitution directly, but Dosik says it’s important to demonstrate popular support.

“You can see the precedents in the Civil Rights Movement, you can see the precedents in the Anti-Vietnam war. These petitions are a way to start a movement,” he says.

At the core of this movement is the notion of “corporate personhood,” the idea that corporations have constitutional rights like freedom of speech. In the Supreme Court’s view, that includes spending on political advertising.

According to Chris Finnie, “That really sets up the ability for wealthy individuals and wealthy corporations to buy all the free speech they want, and where does that leave the rest of us?”

If you really want to know, go to a place like Brecksville, Ohio. That’s where I reached Rose Petsche by phone. As part of a swing district in a swing state, Brecksville got a lot of attention during the presidential campaign in 2012.

“Every ad, you know, for months, was a political ad,” Petsche says. “Every. Single. Ad. So people were inundated, and turning it off, like I had to mute the TV, I couldn’t stand it.”

Petsche started a petition drive for Move to Amend. When they had enough signatures, City Hall even took them to court to keep it off the ballot. The mayor said  “amending the constitution isn’t city business.” But in the end, the measure made it on the ballot, and it passed. “The unifying part of this issue, whether you’re republican or democrat,” Petsche explains, “is that people are feeling they don’t have a voice.”

The goal of the national campaign is to pressure congress to pass a constitutional amendment stating that only human beings are protected by the Bill of Rights. Adam Winkler, who teaches constitutional law at UCLA, says revoking corporate personhood altogether might have unintended consequences.

“The New York Times, for instance, or Fox News, would not have any constitutional right to free speech, and could be censored at the will of the government,” says Winkler.

Legal personhood is complicated. In international law, a legal person could be a whole country; when it comes to signing contracts, children aren’t considered legal persons at all. Winkler says it’s important to allow for corporate constitutional rights in some circumstances to protect free commerce and freedom of the press. But that doesn’t quite have the same spark.

“What reformers want is to empower the government to adopt reasonable campaign finance laws,” Winkler says. “Yet that would not inspire the kind of political mobilization that’s necessary for a constitutional amendment.”

So far, measures saying that corporations aren’t people have passed in all thirty towns and counties where they’ve gotten on the ballot. Dozens of similar measures are pending, and more than 200 municipal governments have passed resolutions of support on their own.

Dosik is still waiting for corporations to challenge them in court. “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then we win,” he says.