Democrats Call for New Amendment to Limit First Amendment Rights

Matt Cover | April 19, 2012 | 5:46pm EDT
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( – Democratic Representatives Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) renewed their call for a constitutional amendment that would limit the First Amendment rights of political action groups and corporations by overturning the Citizens United decision.

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Edwards and Conyers are the chief sponsors of an amendment that would repeal Citizens United and restrict the free-speech rights of political groups. They, along with several House and Senate Democrats appeared at a conference of liberal groups on Wednesday focused on amending the Constitution to repeal Citizens United.

When asked by what type of political speech the government could control, Edwards said that since Citizens United it could not regulate political speech and that was the problem.

“In Citizens United what the [Supreme] Court said was that Congress has no authority to regulate this kind of political speech,” she said. ‘And so all these constitutional amendments go to this question of giving Congress the authority that the Supreme Court, I think, wrongly decided, isn’t within Congress’ constitutional purview.”

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) (AP Photo)

Edwards claimed that her amendment – and the other proposed amendments discussed at the conference – would not restrict the First Amendment rights of individuals. Instead, it would be the First Amendment rights of activist groups, unions, and political committees that would be restricted.

“The traditional rights of free speech that we have known as citizens would not be disturbed by any of these constitutional amendments,” said Rep. Edwards.  “But what it would do is say all of the speech in which – whether it’s corporations or campaign committees and others engage in -- would be able to be fully regulated under the authority of the Congress and under our Constitution.”

Edwards said that by repealing Citizens United, Congress could take away free-speech rights from “corporations,” which is a typical liberal attack on the idea of corporate personhood that was upheld by the Supreme Court.

“It [the amendment] would recognize that – it would recognize in some of the constitutional amendments, and I think we have to debate them – it would recognize that   individuals have rights of [free] speech but as others have said – Congressman [James] McGovern (D-Mass.) – have said, corporations, however they’re constituted, are not individual creatures, they’re not persons.”

U.S. Supreme Court (AP Photo)

This criticism, however, is a misstatement of the idea of legal corporate personhood as upheld in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision. In that ruling, the Court affirmed that groups of people that have banded together under the legal banner of a corporation retain their constitutional right to free speech. The court did not declare that the legal creation known as a corporation was the same as a living, breathing person.

Corporate personhood extends legal rights to corporations in other areas besides political speech, including property rights, the right to sue in court, and the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

When asked what she meant by “corporations,” Edwards repeated that a corporation was not a person, arguing that corporations only had the rights granted to them by the government.

“In my view a corporation is not a person, it is not an individual,” she said. “The rights that it has are those that are granted by the state, granted by the Congress. … Courts make decisions all the time. It’s the job of the United States Congress and the people of the United States to make sure that when we believe they’ve gotten it wrong in terms of their interpretation of the Constitution, we make sure that our Constitution reflects fully what we believe. As I said, 78 percent of the American people believe as we do that Citizens United was wrongly decided and that Congress should have the authority to regulate campaigns.”

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