United Citizens Against Citizens United

The Palo Alto City Council became the latest of many in California to consider an endorsement of the grassroots organization Move to Amend’s proposal for a 28th constitutional amendment. The organization seeks to overturn the controversial Supreme Court ruling for Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010). Rather than following the lead of Sacramento, San Francisco and others, Palo Alto voted 7-1 against the motion to endorse last Monday, instead simply writing a letter to national legislators voicing their support for a similar amendment. The city officials almost all view the court case as misguided, but they wanted to distance themselves from the very contentious wording of the Move to Amend proposal.

Citizens United was a landmark 2010 case centering on campaign finance, in which the 501(c)(4) organization Citizens United alleged that their right to free speech had been violated by an unfair law restricting political broadcasts by nonmedia corporations in the time immediately before elections. The group had produced a  movie negatively portraying then-Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, which was not allowed to be aired or advertised for.

The prosecution won 5-4, with the majority stating that expenditures constituted a form of speech protected by the Constitution, and that since individuals are protected, corporations are also protected as they are simply groups of individuals. The dissent, written by Justice John Stevens, expressed concerns that “A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold” and that this would “undermine the integrity of elected institutions.” While the ruling still does not allow corporations to donate directly to political parties, it has led to the creation of super-PACs, political action committees that can be donated to anonymously and are able to advertise for whatever political party they choose.

Rob Reich, associate professor of political science, states that he believes this loophole to be the most troubling development in the wake of this case. “For the civic value of that speech to be fully valid, the identity of the speaker ought to be known,” he said. “That seems to be genuinely bad policy.” Fellow political science lecturer Jim Steyer shares this sentiment. “I think an important element of reform of our political system and a better functioning democracy would be thoughtful campaign finance reform,” he says, adding that this is a matter of concern not only for citizens but also for politicians.

The Move to Amend organization started in September 2009 with the aim of building a democracy “that is genuinely accountable to the people, not corporate interests.” Their proposed amendment is tripartite, basically stating that corporations are not people and are subject to regulation, monetary spending is not speech and is subject to regulation, and that freedom of the press is not infringed upon by the amendment.

Move to Amend and many similar grassroots organizations cause conflicting emotions in many that lead to very different degrees of effectiveness. “I believe it’s good for people of all political persuasions to get involved at the grassroots level,” Steyer adds. “I think that’s the essence of democracy.” However, he agrees with the city council that it is not the role of the municipality to decide matters of national importance. This is the conflict seen by many regarding Move to Amend. While this is an issue of great concern to many voters, the movement has only gotten traction at the city level and seems incapable of rising father.

Reich is cautiously optimistic about these efforts. “Most things that start off as grassroots efforts peter out and amount to nothing.” he said. “But once in a while grassroots efforts actually amount to something big and effect large-scale change.” This is the hope behind many similar organizations whose number has grown this year to receive national attention, most notably the Kony 2012 campaign this spring. But Will Ahamed, ’15 and Neighborhood Team Leader for Organizing for America, is less hopeful. “I think [the city of Palo Alto’s decision] is just putting a Band-Aid on it, and that endorsing an amendment isn’t much better,” he states. “I think where the real work to be done is convincing people who actually influence national politics like party leaders and public intellectuals, because I don’t usually look to the city of Palo Alto for national policy.”

The Move to Amend organization seems to be at a point where the only actions it is capable of are ones too small to be considered worth doing by many who would support its cause. Like many other grassroots causes though, it has been gaining steady ground and has high ambitions. So long as they continue to amass support, these might be a serious factor in the 2016 elections.

For more information on Move to Amend, visit their website at www.movetoamend.org.

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