Citizens Flexing Their Democratic Muscles in Ohio

Citizens in Many Communities Affirming Their Right to Decide and Challenging Corporate Rights

The problem has been clearly described. Several strategies have been agreed to. The struggle is now on.

An evolution in awareness and action is taking place against corporate power in Ohio. The same is true elsewhere.

Citizens in several Ohio communities are focusing beyond individual corporate abuses to the issue of never-intended corporate rights.

While the impetus for the grassroots education and action has been individual corporate harms — such as the explosion of corporate money in elections or gas drilling (fracking) in neighborhoods by out-of-state corporations – the grassroots reaction is to challenge the collective constitutional rights that all corporations have possessed for more than a century.

Two complementary challenges are being used by activists who see corporate abuses as more than simply the harming of their land, the poisoning of their water, or the domination of the public airwaves with political attack ads by a few out-of-control corporate entities. The fundamental problem increasingly being realized is the basic threat posed by corporations to citizen self-governance – the profound right that citizens in a democracy possess to decide policies, practices and prescriptions in their own communities, state and nation. This issue transcends geographic region, political party, ethnicity, gender, race, religion or age.

The first challenge is promoted by the Move to Amend campaign, the national coalition of dozens of organizations formed on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United vs. FEC, granting corporations greater First Amendment free speech “rights” to spend money in elections.  Move to Amend launched a campaign to amend the U.S. Constitution to declare that only human beings, not corporations, possess inalienable constitutional rights and, therefore can be regulated; and that money is not equivalent to speech and, therefore, political contributions and spending can be regulated.

More than 150 communities have passed council resolutions or citizen initiatives calling on their elected representatives to pass a constitutional amendment to reserve Citizens United, abolish “corporate personhood,” and/or end “money as speech.” More than 100 other communities are in the process. Here in Ohio, the communities of Athens, Oberlin, Cleveland Heights, and Barberton are among those communities that have passed council resolutions. Similar efforts are underway in Cincinnati, Toledo, Columbus, Akron, and Summit County. Citizens in several other communities, including Dayton, Lakewood, Shaker Heights, and others, have begun organizing for similar purposes.

Additionally, pro-democracy citizen activists in Defiance and Brecksville launched citizen initiative campaigns to place an ordinance on their respective ballots containing the Move to Amend language. Both collected more than enough signatures. The Defiance initiative, however, missed the deadline to turn in petitions based on incorrect information supplied by their Board of Elections. The Brecksville initiative received a sufficient number of signatures. It was contested, however, by the City of Brecksville. The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections split in their decision on whether to place the initiative on the ballot. The issue will likely end up before the Ohio Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the Mayor and Council in the Village of Newburgh Heights voted unanimously in August to place the language of the Move to Amend campaign on their ballot this November for voter consideration. The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections lumped this initiative together with the Brecksville citizen initiative in their 2 to 2 ruling. Citizen activists in both communities are confident the court ruling will go their way. Regardless of the outcome, however, the strategy to address fundamental governing “rights” of corporations and money from a wealthy few are finally being seen as credible and necessary.

The second challenge to challenging corporate “rights” involves the passage of local laws or ordinances that directly challenges U.S. Constitutional rights. This strategy, promoted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) out of Pennsylvania, encourages home rule communities to enact local laws uplifting the rights of citizens to protect their “health, safety, and welfare” which takes precedent over any right corporations may possess. The current vehicle promoted by CELDF is a community “Bills of Rights.”

Throughout the summer, citizen activists in Broadview Heights organized an initiative petition affirming the rights of their citizens to pure water, clean air, peaceful enjoyment of home, natural communities, sustainable energy future, and self-government. They declare that people are sovereign and that their rights supersede the rights of corporations. (Go here for a complete description).

The Brecksville citizen activists secured a sufficient number of valid signatures to place their initiative on the ballot. The Bill of Rights is a clear challenge to the notion that corporations have constitutional rights. If passed, it will likely be challenged in court – which will call into question the fundamental issue of who/what has more rights – human beings or corporations (which are creations of the people and the state and, as such, could not exist if not for the state).

While the Move to Amend and CELDF strategies are different, they should be seen as complementary and not competitive. Each has its own unique advantages. In a society that offers consumers 200 (if not 2000) different types of underarm deodorant or shades of blue paint, providing citizens more than one different strategy to take on the fundamental problem of never intended corporate rule and governance seems healthy and necessary.

Citizens are ever more flexing their democratic muscles in sweeping ways — well beyond addressing a single corporate harm, a single corporate abuse or a single corporation.

Challenging corporate rights, be it through the Move to Amend or CELDF approach, is, indeed, the right choice.

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