For 220 years it has stood inviolate. Since George Washington's presidency, the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution has inspired the world as the written guarantee of Americans' personal freedoms.
Now some folks think it's time to rewrite that dysfunctional scrap of paper. A nationwide coalition active here in Madison is working to affix a big fat asterisk on the First Amendment so as to deny its guarantee of free speech to those with whom coalition members disagree.
The Dane County Board and the Madison Common Council are listening. Both are considering placing an advisory referendum on the April 5 spring election ballot to curtail the free speech rights of citizens who have voluntarily assembled for economic purposes. No, not members of labor unions - they would be exempt. The proposed constitutional muzzle is aimed at their employers, the evil corporations. Voters would be asked:
"Should the United States Constitution be amended to establish that regulating political contributions and spending is not equivalent to limiting freedom of speech by stating that only human beings, not corporations, are entitled to constitutional rights."
The measure has 18 sponsors on the 37-member Dane County Board, including Chair Scott McDonell. Madison's Common Council may vote to put the referendum on the ballot as early as next Tuesday, Jan. 18; the County Board could take it up on Jan. 20.
The goal is to restore the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law after its evisceration by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision, rendered a year ago.
The Progressive's Matt Rothschild has likened Citizens United to the infamous Dred Scott slavery decision. Keith Olbermann predicted the decision would unleash a hellish dystopia of book burning and race wars. Ed Garvey called it "quite frankly, the worst day in American history." Yes, worse than Pearl Harbor or 9/11.
The ballot question is the brainchild of a nationwide group called "Move to Amend," co-chaired here by Kaja Rebane, former co-president of the UW-Madison Teaching Assistants union. The group is planning rallies across the nation on Jan. 21, the anniversary of the court's decision. A "democracy convention" is planned for Aug. 24-28 in Madison.
Move to Amend is supported by the usual suspects, including Progressive Dane, the Green Party, the National Lawyers Guild, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the anarchic Ruckus Society, Mike McCabe's Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, The Capital Times and The Nation magazine.
But the support rises higher on the political food chain. President Barack Obama dressed down the justices seated before him in his last State of the Union Address, causing Justice Samuel Alito to famously mouth "Not true." The effort had the backing of Rep. John Conyers, who was the House Judiciary Committee chair until the Republicans took over this month.
Move to Amend's arguments are these:
1. Only human beings, not corporations, are entitled to constitutional rights; and
2. Money is not speech and, therefore, regulating political contributions and spending is not the same as limiting freedom of speech.
Money is not speech? Then why does Mike McCabe want my money?
"Your donation to the Democracy Campaign helps make our work for clean government and real democracy in Wisconsin possible," McCabe wheedled in an online pitch, before identifying various ways to give.
Only human beings, not corporations, are entitled to constitutional rights? Then why must Jim Pugh of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce be muzzled 60 days before an election, as McCain-Feingold required, while John Nichols is free to use the resources of Madison Newspapers Inc. (a.k.a. Capital Newspapers) right up to and including election day?
Corporations may not themselves be people, but neither is Progressive Dane. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in his concurrence:
"The dissent says that when the Framers 'constitutionalized the right to free speech in the First Amendment, it was the free speech of individual Americans that they had in mind.' That is no doubt true. All the provisions of the Bill of Rights set forth the rights of individual men and women - not, for example, of trees or polar bears. But the individual person's right to speak includes the right to speak in association with other individual persons.
"Surely," Scalia continued, "the dissent does not believe that speech by the Republican Party or the Democratic Party can be censored because it is not the speech of 'an individual American.'"
The moderate swing vote on the high court, Justice Anthony Kennedy, suggested that the common folk should be trusted to sift and winnow the truth for themselves. A government that rations and redistributes political speech is dangerous, he wrote.
"When government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves."
At least for the time being.
David Blaska blogs for Isthmus on TheDailyPage.com.