Helena city commissioners unanimously approved a resolution Monday calling for Montana’s congressional delegation to pursue an amendment to the United States Constitution affirming that constitutional rights extend only to “natural persons” and that money does not constitute free speech.
Monday’s resolution calls specifically for an amendment to affirm that “the rights extended by the Constitution are the rights of natural persons only” and that corporations and other “[a]rtificial entities… shall have no rights under this Constitution and are subject to regulation by the People....” Regarding corporate political expenditures, the resolution calls for said amendment to affirm that “money is not equal free speech and therefore non-human legal entities are prohibited from making contributions or expenditures for or against a candidate or ballot issues.”
Monday’s resolution specifically calls for a two-thirds vote in the U.S. House and Senate to implement the amendment. At the city commission’s Oct. 10 administrative meeting, Commissioner Heather O’Loughlin said she had “grave concerns” about the possibility of a constitutional convention.
The First Amendment status of corporations took on new urgency with the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which declared political contributions a form of speech, and therefore protected by the Constitution.
Commissioner Ed Noonan moved to approve the resolution following public comment, seconded by commissioner Andres Haladay. Commissioner Rob Farris-Olsen, who will depart the commission Dec. 17 to represent Helena in the Montana House of Representatives, was absent from Monday’s meeting.
“Some people would say this is not the kind of thing we need to involve ourselves in as a city commission,” Noonan said prior to the vote. “But this amendment speaks very directly to the experiences of our community and of our state. Just think of the amount of money that was spent in the U.S. Senate race in this last election.”
Spending on this month’s U.S. Senate election between Sen. Jon Tester and Matt Rosendale topped $60 million, a state record.
“I mean, if that money in any other way came to the state of Montana, it could have great benefits,” Noonan said.
Public comment on the resolution was brief, with commissioners hearing from only three attendees, including state Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell of House District 84.
“Abe Lincoln said in his Gettysburg Address, ‘of the people, by the people, for the people,’” Dunwell said. “Not ‘of dark money, by multinational corporations, for unlimited political contributions.’”
Angela Dansie told commissioners she traveled from the Beaverhead County city of Dillon, a drive of over 120 miles, to be at Monday night’s meeting as the issue of free speech is “very, very important” to her.
“There are multiple approaches right now, a lot of different organizations taking multiple approaches to getting this amendment,” Dansie said, “and I support any and all approaches and resolutions calling for a proposal of this amendment.”
The idea of an amendment affirming constitutional rights only for human beings is not a new one in Montana.
The Corporate Contributions Initiative passed with the approval of nearly 75 percent of Montana voters in 2012 reading in part, “corporations are not entitled to constitutional rights because they are not human beings.” Also known as I-166, part of the initiative that “charged” the Montana congressional delegation with pursuing an amendment was later struck down in court.
The number of American cities that have previously approved such resolutions varies depending on the source. A draft of Monday’s resolution discussed at the Oct. 10 meeting, stated that Helena would join “530 American towns, cities, counties and states” in calling for the amendment. Reclaim the American Dream, a website favoring a rollback of the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, claims more than 700 American localities have already adopted similar resolutions.
The full resolution passed Monday is available for download from the online meeting agenda listed on the city website.