Editor’s note: Please click on the first photo in this story to see a cool PHOTO GALLERY of the event.
It was an old-fashioned revival meeting. It was a political pep rally. And it was a metaphorical tar and feathering of the bad guys. It was also, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders would simply say, “huuuge.”
Sanders hosted a meeting Saturday afternoon on the topic of the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision which bestowed “personhood” on large corporations, and in the process turned the political money spigots from a stream to a gusher. Judging from a standing-room-only crowd of some 450 people who packed into the auditorium at Montpelier High School, the court’s decision had no friends in the hall.
Vermont’s popular populist Sanders, who got a rock star standing O and gave the crowd plenty of applause lines, brought with him a lineup of progressive stars, democracy advocates and law experts to shred the decision. They declared it “terrible,” “ugly,” “mind boggling” and a dramatic threat to the nation’s democracy, and they called for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision.
Joining Sanders was radio host and author Thom Hartmann (a former Montpelier resident), Robert Weissman, president of Washington-based Public Citizen which advocates for people versus corporate power, Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna, a constitutional law expert, and Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, who has proposed in the Legislature an amendment to the Constitution providing that corporations are not persons under the laws of the United States.
Even ex-ice cream moguls Ben & Jerry showed up, putting a simple face (or two) on the issue and drawing a good laugh.
“We’re here as two real life examples of people,” said Ben Cohen, standing with Jerry Greenfield, his partner in progressive causes.
“I’m Ben, I’m a person,” he said.
“I’m Jerry, I’m a person,” chimed in Greenfield.
Then, said Cohen of his erstwhile ice cream company: “Ben & Jerry’s: Not a person.”
The crowd roared with approval.
For most, including over 30 people who queued up to ask questions and express dismay at what they saw as the erosion of citizen democracy, the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission case, was deadly serious. The U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed unlimited corporate spending in elections and determined that corporations were people and thus deserved the same free speech rights.
Looking at the impressive throng, which drew folks from Lincoln and Barnet, Northfield and the Mad River Valley, Sanders said, “What this tells me is Vermonters are worried about the future of our democracy and are willing to take on the big money in politics.”
Sanders said the decision “upended a century of precedent” in how corporations are perceived legally and will make an already “terrible terrible system” of campaign and political financing “much much worse.”
In addition, corporations are shielded from having to disclose how they’re spending money, said Sanders, arguing that Americans’ control over their democracy has “made a U-turn” because of the high court decision.
Sanders, in a speech detailing how big money holds sway in Congress, said the only way to reverse the impact of money in politics is to require public financing of elections and to pass a constitutional amendment removing personhood from massive corporations.
Hartmann, speaking with a latter-day preacher’s passion and rhythms, regaled the crowd with past U.S. president’s denunciations of corporations and the risks of their usurping power, including one of the founders, Thomas Jefferson and President Grover Cleveland, (1893-97), who wrote of citizens being “trampled by the corporate heel.”
Hartmann’s history lesson included the nuggets that corporations at first had a limited life span and were frequently sunsetted after their purpose — often a specific project — was accomplished. He said this was the case through much of the 1800s but began to shift in the 1900s in the age of the Robber Barons.
“We have to strip corporations of the power they have over us because it’s killing us,” he declared. In a poignant turn, he told the gathering how his father had died of lung cancer after 20 years of exposure to asbestos. Corporations knew, he said, at the time that the dust from asbestos was dangerous.
Weissman, who said the shift in legal standing of corporations has changed dramatically only in the last four decades, said the money that will be unleashed without disclosure in 2012 is frightening.
“It is a bad, bad situation,” he said. But he also confidently said the Citizens United precedent — which he described as “abominable” and “stupid” — would not stand and a movement around the country on all sides of the political spectrum was growing to overturn the idea that corporations could be viewed the same as people.
Fifty years down the road, he said, people will be asking of the court, “What in the world were they thinking?”
Hanna, the law professor at Vermont Law School, told the crowd some interesting legal cases were already beginning to trim the sails of the court’s ruling in Citizens United. The high court itself ruled 9-0 against AT&T when it claimed the rights of a person in trying to deny a Freedom of Information Act request, she said.
A Vermont court case on drug company data mining is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court on April 26, and it delves into distinctions between “ free speech” and “commercial speech” and issues of how they are viewed and can be regulated, she said.
Hanna cautioned that while there are understandable visceral reactions to the idea of massive corporations as persons, the issue of First Amendment rights to free speech can be complex and shaded. Nonprofits and media businesses, even humane societies, are all corporations as well, and there is a “fine line” in drawing distinctions.
“It’s complicated,” she said.
That concern was raised by Times Argus and Rutland Herald newspaper publisher John Mitchell of Worcester, who said along with everyone else he shared concerns about large corporations spending in politics. But he noted his locally owned media business is also a corporation.
“How do we make sure my ability to do my job is not harmed,” he asked.
One Montpelier resident wanted to know what they could do to work to overturn the court ruling: “As you know, when you come here, you’re preaching to the choir.”
Sanders replied that corporations’ efforts to make a profit at all costs and arm-twist politicians was “never, never ending” and was not likely to change anytime soon. He said the only thing that would work was a grassroots movement, an idea Hartmann strongly seconded, noting his experience was that Tea Party partisans had many of the same populist concerns as those in the crowd in Montpelier.
“We need to take over the Tea Party movement,” he said, and join forces.