By Briana Kerensky and Mitch Jones
Next week marks the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case. Since 2010, corporations have been legally able to use their deep pockets to influence politics, to a destructive degree. According to the Supreme Court, corporations have the same First Amendment right to free speech as people, and as such are allowed to give as much money to political campaigns as they want. But whereas the average Joe or Jane might donate up to a few hundred dollars, corporations have the ability and resources to put millions of dollars into a campaign and change the course of an election.
What does this terrifying concept mean for our work to protect the food you eat and the water you drink? Read on for Citizens United 101, where we break down the landmark case, how it’s changed the electoral process and what it means for the safety of your food and water.
What is Citizens United?
In a nutshell, Citizens United is a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that allows for unlimited campaign contributions in the U.S. electoral system. Corporate donations to elections are now supposed to be protected as free speech. There are three big takeaways from the ruling:
- Citizens United established that free speech rights are solely about speech, and not the speaker.
- Citizens United didn’t create corporate personhood (the idea that businesses have the same rights and protections as humans), but it claims that corporate personhood extends to the First Amendment.
- Since political speech is a fundamental First Amendment right, any constraint on it has to be limited. For a long time the U.S. didn’t allow corporations to spend money on political campaigns, in order to avoid political corruption. What Citizens United ruled, though, is that avoiding corruption puts a damper on free speech rights.
What does Citizens United mean for corporate control?
Citizens United opens up the ability of corporations to spend money on political campaigns. So in terms of control of our political system, it allows corporations the ability to take much more overt control of funding of campaigns and pushing through their agenda. It helps corporations make sure that legislative bodies, whether at the federal level or state level, governorships, attorney generals, and even in some instances judges, are aligned with their interests.
What does Citizens United have to do with Food & Water Watch’s work?
Citizens United allows corporations to have yet another avenue for gaming the political system. Corporations have more money to spend than the average citizen or most non-profits, making it more difficult for organizations like Food & Water Watch (which doesn’t accept donations from corporations or the government) and our allies to advocate for legislation that protects our food, that stops damaging trade deals and that bans fracking. Citizens United allows corporations to use their political influence to essentially buy themselves a government that is willing to implement their agenda.
What’s the relationship between Citizens United and the DARK Act, which would allow corporations like Monsanto to keep GMO ingredients off food labels?
The free spending on political campaigns that Citizens United allows certainly makes bills like the DARK Act harder for Food & Water Watch and our allies to defeat. “Thanks” to the 2010 ruling, there is now a large amount of money (think billions) being spent in support of political candidates who support the DARK Act, as well as other Big Ag, Big Oil and Gas, and free trade agendas. As long as Citizens United remains in place, it makes it more likely that pro-corporate candidates will get elected, then introduce and vote for legislation like the DARK Act.
What is Food & Water Watch doing about Citizens United?
Food & Water Watch is working with a group of partner organizations from the environmental community, the faith community and organized labor to push for a constitutional amendment that would grant Congress and the states the power to regulate the amount of money in federal and state elections – reversing some of the problems with Citizens United.
What can I do to help?
In the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court gave corporations massive power over our democracy, treating them just like people… except that, in the case of corporations, protecting their supposed “freedom of speech” means allowing them to make unlimited political donations and effectively buy campaigns.
That’s no way for democracy to function. Corporations shouldn’t control our food supply or our political process. Tell your members of Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to take back democracy for the people and overturn Citizens United!