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OP-ED: Brownsberger Will Not Ask Congress to Change the First Amendment

The Citizens United case concerns the State Senator, but he writes that corporations should be able to make contributions.

Recently, many colleagues and constituents whom I greatly respect have urged me to vote Yes on a Senate resolution urging Congress to:

send to the states for ratification a constitutional amendment to restore the First Amendment and fair elections to the people.

The resolution is a response to the Citizens United case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations (and, by implication, individuals) may spend as they wish to influence the outcome of an election, provided that they are spending independently instead of giving to a candidate.

I share the widespread concern about the influence of money in politics. And I recognize the unpopularity of the Citizens Uniteddecision.

I strongly support pending legislation to improve disclosure of independent spending. And in my own political campaigns I decline to accept PAC contributions and contributions from lobbyists. I also don’t do back-door corporate fundraising — the parties where corporate officers and their spouses are assembled to donate to a candidate.

However, I will not be among those voting to ask Congress to change the Constitution. I believe that the founders got it right when they authored the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I wouldn’t change a word of that ancient American commitment to liberal philosophy. I truly believe that any constitutional process initiated for the purpose of amending that text can only do harm.

Of course, corporations are not people and money is not speech. But corporations today are an everyday form of association among people, widely used by both liberal and conservative advocacy groups as well as by businesses. And money is what it takes to disseminate speech. And political campaigns are the heart of American democracy — they are precisely what the first amendment is designed to protect.

The case law before Citizens United had become a mish-mosh of arbitrary distinctions among kinds of speech and kinds of entities engaging in speech. Citizens United, broadly understood, articulated a simple rule that people, whether organized through corporations or otherwise, can spend as they wish to disseminate their views, but may be limited in the amounts that they give directly to politicians. The court saw the limits on donations directly to politicians as justified by the public interest in controlling corruption.

There is a lot wrong with our politics today. But there has been a lot wrong with the politics of every era. We should not allow contemporary political concerns to make us forget what we’ve done right in this country. Our founders committed to the idea that the people should be allowed to engage in free speech and run presses (i.e., spend money) to disseminate that speech. That idea expresses a faith in common sense. We put our faith in the people to sort out all the noise of political advertising and eventually do the right thing.

That faith in the American people is the heart of my own personal religion and I do oppose the present well-intentioned efforts to tinker with the First Amendment.

Click here for a more detailed discussion of the Citizens United case itself. See generally this thread for a sampling of views on the issue.

And best wishes to all as we celebrate our Declaration of Independence.

John DiMascio June 26, 2012 at 09:25 AM
I don't often agree with Will Brownsberger. But he's got this right. I'd also add that these kinds of resolutions from Legislatures or Municipal governments, as a rule are a waste of time. If you want Congress to do something, you lobby congress. If you want the legislature to pass or repeal something, you take it to the legislature, you don't get your Town Council to pass a resolution expressing a sentiment. It's simply the wrong venue.
K Coyne June 26, 2012 at 02:44 PM
I too agree with Will Brownsberger in that the constitution does have it correct. That said, I do believe there is a problem with the way our political system is basically run by money vs. the people. I don’t see any issue with limiting the amount of $$ that all politicians can have/collect, so that the politician is not an arm of large donors(or attempts to buy the votes). This would not stop any individual or corporation from lobbying(no $$ involved for the politician here). I would like to see a level playing field for ‘the people’ with respect to running for office. Then a politician can actually spend their time doing the work ‘of the people’ vs. going out and lobbying for more donations the day after they are elected. I do not see the limitations of currency to politicians as a prohibition of free speech. However, I do feel that not limiting the amount of money and influence large donators have is an infringement on many people’s free speech. What would Congressman Brownsberger do to help fix this problem(IMO) in our political system?
Mara June 26, 2012 at 03:49 PM
I think the state should pass a law and maybe the federal level will pick it up. Three rules: 1. Donations only from individuals 2. Donations only from those residing inside the state of the politician. 3. Donor lists are public. Obviously, national campaigns (President) would take donations from all states. But otherwise, you have to be from the state of the candidate. I hate these people from Texas contributing to the man or woman who is supposed to represent me in Massachusetts.
Mara June 26, 2012 at 03:52 PM
Oh...and corporations are NOT people. Here's a quote from Abraham Lincoln who realized this (the founding fathers could never have conceived the corporatizing of the USA): “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”
John DiMascio June 27, 2012 at 09:45 AM
I believe Corporations can't give money to candidates now. It's PAC which can get corporate money. And that can't be changed. And if we are going to ban corporate donations then you have to ban union donation, especially public employee unions. Also limiting campaign funds, give the incumbent an unreasonable advantage. Incumbents get free mailings and all sorts of other free media. Perhaps the solution lies in term limits. If you limit the terms you'll guarantee a greater turn over and you'll have more open seats. Donors lists are public. Massachusetts Office of campaign finance has State Candidates listed. There is also a site for federal. And then there is also followthemoney.org But the court has rightly ruled with respect to PAC money. You can't limit freedom of political speech, advertizing or efforts to get out the vote.. And that means groups have a right to organize, collect money and use it. That goes for both sides. You can't limit move on dot org, and you can't limit the right wing pacs. But you can get disclosure of who funds the pacs.
Sonny Beaches June 27, 2012 at 08:46 PM
Ever hear of CITIZENS UNITED V. FEDERAL ELECTION COMMISSION? In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions have the same political speech rights as individuals under the First Amendment. It found no compelling government interest for prohibiting corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make election-related independent expenditures. Thus, it struck down a federal law banning this practice and also overruled two of its prior decisions. http://www.cga.ct.gov/2010/rpt/2010-R-0124.htm
John DiMascio June 28, 2012 at 12:21 PM
Yes, but it speaks to independent expenditures related to a campaign. It doesn't seem to strike down laws forbidding direct corporate contributions to campaigns. So a group running independent ads like Move.org or AARP can take corporate contributions to run ads for or against candidates. That is different than GE contributing directly to Barack Obama's campaign. That's my reading of Citizens United. This could possibly used as a precedent to strike down laws about direct contributions. But to my knowledge, no such case is before the courts presently Now some can reasonably argue that a contribution to an independent campaign are a de-facto contribution to a candidate. But there are regulations forbidding coordination between a candidates campaign and independent campaigns run by PACs. If you believe those campaigns are entirely independent than you believe Colonel Sanders is a war hero. Nevertheless, I believe SCOTUS ruled correctly in Citizens United. If corporations are going to be taxed like a person and then dividends are going to be taxed again, then they have the same interest in the political process as any other person in participating in the political process. If a company is effected by laws and regulations, than that company needs to have a voice in the political process.
Sam Allen October 10, 2013 at 08:16 PM
Will Brownsberger is one of the most liberal candidates, and is very right on his pledge to accept only money from personal donations, and not PAC's like these corrupt politicians are doing nowadays. Peter Koutoujian is a hypocrite, who believes in stronger gun laws when he himself, just bought a gun. He got a B- from the NRA, when Will got an F, meaning he is more for gun control. Carl Schortino and Katherine Clark, are using thousands of dollars from PAC's so that they can win and do not really care for the people of this district. Also, Karen Spilka is definitely the most conservative here. So, Will Brownsberger is really the only one supporting key decisions made by our founding fathers. If you really want to know more about this go to his website, or actually just call him(Yes, you can call his personal phone), and not rely on such biased media, for your information.

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