Citizens United resolution moves closer to vote by Winston-Salem council

Tony Ndege of Occupy Winston-Salem urges members of the general government committee to approve a resolution calling on Congress to overturn the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. 

The Winston-Salem City Council will consider a resolution next Monday calling on Congress to amend the US Constitution to establish that "only human beings, not corporations, are endowed with constitutional rights protected by the First Amendment" and that "money is not speech under the First Amendment and therefore regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting political speech."

The resolution was approved by a 3-1 vote tonight by the general government committee following an amendment moved by Councilwoman Denise D. Adams to strike a reference to the US Supreme Court declaring "corporations to be persons" in the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, based on an objection by Councilman Dan Besse that the statement was not factually accurate.

Councilman James Taylor Jr., who brought the original resolution to council at the urging of Occupy Winston-Salem, reluctantly agreed to the amendment. The amended resolution passed with support from Taylor, Adams and Councilwoman Molly Leight, while Besse voted against it. 

City Attorney Angela Carmon concurred with Besse's reading of the Citizens United decision.

"I don't believe the decision declared corporations to be persons," she said. "I believe it declared corporations to be entitled to the same First Amendment protections as natural persons."

After the meeting, Besse circulated an alternative resolution stating that the Supreme Court's rulings "that unlimited spending by non-candidates in efforts to influence the outcome of an election cannot be regulated" and that corporations cannot be regulated as a class distinct from natural persons should be overturned.

City Attorney Angela Carmon told council members that amendments from the floor at next Monday's meeting are permissible. But Montgomery warned that his colleagues should be cautious about entertaining amendments lest the consensus around the resolution unravel and the matter wind up getting sent back to committee. 

"I believe we should send a clear message to the federal judicial branch to let them know that elections should not and will not be bought in this country, in this state and even in this city," Taylor said. "There are hundreds upon hundreds of cities all across the country that stand with us. It isn't just me presenting this. I represent some people who are here today, who I believe are going to speak. This is a grassroots movement. It isn't just us. There are hundreds of cities across the country, and even cities in this state that have approved the resolution calling for an amendment to the Citizens United decision. Those major cities in North Carolina are Greensboro, Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Asheville and Greenville."

Kim Porter of Occupy Winston-Salem said about a thousand Winston-Salem residents have signed a petition supporting the resolution, including NC Sen. Earline Parmon, NC Rep. Ed Hanes Jr., Winston-Salem NAACP President Wayne Patterson and former Councilman Larry Little, and 300 other North Carolinians from outside of the city also signed on.  

"When you give money free speech, you give corporations a much larger megaphone than, say, I could," said Adam Price, a resolution supporter who said he is currently homeless. "I don't have as much money. What does my voice count in a democratic system where my voice should count if I don't have as much free speech as the next guy. If we turn money into a form of free speech, then we now have a higher system of the amount of free speech than each person will be able to attain in their lifetime. I'm not going to be a millionaire -- I'm not going to say that -- but I'm probably not going to be a millionaire. But if money is free speech, then that millionaire has a million more free speeches than I do. One man, one vote, and if you support that -- support that democratic view of one man, one vote, you'll push this. Let's do this. Let's take it from the ground up. City Hall to Supreme Court. Let's do it. Come on, guys."

Besse has long opposed the resolution, arguing to colleagues that it is not an appropriate area for city council to get involved and that denying corporations the rights of personhood could have the unintended consequence of preventing groups of people from coming together to advance their interests.

"I voted against the resolution because I don't like the way it handled the corporate personhood issue and because it fails to address some of the problems in the Citizens United decision," he said after the meeting. "I think that Move to Amend and other groups like them take the wrong tack on the Citizens United case. It addresses a related issue and fails to address the fundamental issues of the Citizens United decision. I expect to discuss the alternative resolution that I drafted for the city council on Monday evening and simply lay out the option. I think for those who want this it's best to tell them: 'If you want to see Citizens United overturned, this is a better call. I told my fellow council members we would bring it to a resolution next Monday night one way or another. Whether I'm on the winning side or not doesn't really matter to me."

Tony Ndege of Occupy Winston-Salem indicated that he was satisfied overall with the committee's handling of the resolution.

"I'm happy that this is moving along," he said. "I am very unhappy that the wording on 'corporate personhood' has been struck, but I'm happy that the language about moving to amend was left in. Whether or not they agree or disagree, the idea that the original intent of the First Amendment, with the Fourteenth Amendment and with the Bill of Rights were for natural persons -- that is the essential argument. And it also boils down to whether or not we choose to stand on the side of corporate power or on the side of people."

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