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The Human Rights Amendment

Copyleft by Art Myatt

Corporations currently derive their "constitutionally protected rights" from their status as "legal persons" which dates from a Supreme Court decision in 1886. Today corporations claim that they have a "right to free speech" (protected by the First Amendment) which allows them to spend as much money as they want, in any way they see fit, to influence candidates and elections. Their money is their speech, in this legal theory which is so far upheld by the courts.

The various laws and rules proposed by candidates for Congress do not and cannot change this fundamental condition of corporate "personhood." Unless the Supreme Court can be persuaded to dump more than a century's worth of precedent on this issue, corporate personhood is as firmly rooted as a tall oak tree, and the Congress can only work on the branches with pruning shears.

The Human Rights Amendment to the Constitution of the United States is the chainsaw of campaign finance reform:

Article 1: The rights established by this Constitution and the laws of the United States of America are exclusively the rights of living, breathing humans, citizens of this country or residing therein. No corporation or other type of association or organization can have the status of a "legal person," and thus cannot derive rights from such status.

Article 2: These organizations have no permanent, constitutionally protected rights, though they may have such powers or immunities as are explicitly granted to them by legislative actions at either the federal or the state level. These powers or immunities may be modified or removed by later action of the same legislative bodies. In no case can these powers or immunities override the constitutionally protected rights of human beings.

This proposed Amendment has been "out there" for a couple of years now, without a great deal of attention being paid to it. The field is open for the Green Party to take it up, push for its adoption, and generally make it their issue.

The Amendment concretely and narrowly addresses the question of ending corporate control of the American political process by removing the legal and constitutional basis of their political power and influence. This should be 100% in line with the goals of the Green Party. It gives a concrete way to talk about how to work against the corporations, and why this is a good idea.

In addition it asserts that the rights established by the Constitution apply to both citizens and immigrants or visitors within the borders of this country, and that an American citizen has these rights even outside the borders of the country. In this respect it reiterates and reinforces the portion of the Constitution that already assures rights for non-citizens. Too many people think that "aliens" have no rights here.

The Amendment is carefully worded so as to extend no rights to fetuses, while also not prohibiting laws for the protection of fetuses. That is because abortion rights is a distinctly separate issue, and will have to be settled on its own merits.

It is also worded to make corporations definitely subject to the political process, and to indicate that people have all their constitutional rights even in the workplace. It will be up to individuals in said workplaces to figure out how and when to assert those rights.

It may be thought that such a radical change in the rights of corporations and actual human beings would cause an economic collapse. In fact, before the Supreme Court decision in 1886, corporations had no rights as legal persons in the United States. None. And yet, before 1886, the United States had a functioning, non-collapsed economy.

If the principles of human rights prior to 1886 (but long after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery) were restored, food would still be produced and sold and eaten. Homes would be built and lived in. All the important parts of the economy would still function. However, corporations would no longer be able to run their businesses as they now do, and they would not be able to run the country either. That's the idea.

Some businesses would no doubt collapse. For instance, if single-payer universal health care were to be initiated once insurance companies are no longer able to swamp the airwaves and editorial pages with bullshit about how terrible it would be (with the government in your medicine cabinet and all), some insurance companies would be out of business. If we get serious about cutting greenhouse gas emissions, some coal and oil companies will be out of business. That's the idea.

Businesses that serve the common good, as that good is democratically determined, would thrive. Businesses whose operations or products do harm to people and/or the environment would change or die. That's how it should be. Now, the system is upside-down; the people serve the government and the government serves business needs. The system needs to be put back right side up. The Human Rights Amendment can be a useful tool for this process, so long as there is a strong political movement to use the tool.

Of course, we would need a decent array of unemployment benefits and retraining programs and other employment policies to help the people hurt by this process, workers and managers alike. (We need that now.) We will also have a booming economy in the business of rebuilding cities to make the transition easier. But no mistake, changing the world will not be painless for all. The world, the way it is now, is also not painless for all.

For all practical purposes, there is only one way to get an Amendment attached to the Constitution. The Congress, by a 2/3 majority of both houses, proposes it to the states; then 3/4 of the state legislatures have to ratify it. In theory, the Congress could specify conventions be called in each state for the purpose of ratifying the Amendment, but the way amendments actually have been ratified is by state legislatures. Also in theory, 2/3 of the states could require the Congress to call a national convention for the purpose of proposing amendments, but this has never happened. Such a convention might well be tempted to re-write the whole Constitution, or at least to change major portions of it.

For a single Amendment, proposal by a super-majority of the Congress is the way to start. There is little chance that this Congress, mostly financed by corporate money, might propose this Amendment. The Republicans and Democrats eagerly compete to be the preferred servant of corporations, and neither party would attack them in this fashion. There might be an oddball here and there in Congress who would support the Human Rights Amendment - John McCain might be willing to be a voice howling in the wilderness, or Bernie Sanders - but a 2/3 majority of both houses? No way.

We will have to throw a lot of bastards out of office to get this Amendment passed, and do a hundred other things to build a strong popular anti-corporate movement.

Today, most people are not even aware that corporations are considered "legal persons" and they are not aware of what sorts of legal protections and rights corporations have because of it. And they are not aware that this status cannot be taken away by the Congress - by any Congress, even a good one. They don't know that even a President who wanted to could not change this legal status, and that no Supreme Court is at all likely to. This nonsensical "corporation is a legal person" principle has been embedded in constitutional law for well over a century now, and reinforced by multiple percedents and extensions. Most people will be shocked to hear that nothing less than a constitutional amendment can change this state of affairs.

Used correctly, the attempt to pass the Human Rights Amendment should be a consciousness-raising device, an organizing tool, and possibly even a radicalizing experience for those who work for its passage. Just how radicalizing the experience will be depends on just how far corporations and their supporters go in opposing it.

Human needs, not corporate balance sheets, should determine the priorities of federal, state and local administrations. Democratic rights and consistent legal principles, not money and influence, should determine the outcome of cases in our court system. News media should present the facts of events, not the spin; they should let the opposing sides in controversies speak for themselves instead of smothering the issues in conventional (corporate) attitude which passes for analysis. The society, its working institutions and its government should be controlled from the bottom up, not from the top down; should be made to serve the ordinary people, not just a priveleged elite.

The Human Rights Amendment is certainly not the whole solution for these issues, but it would help with all of them. For now, with half the population not bothering to vote and the corporate parties getting the support of 95 per cent of those who do, agitating for the Human Rights Amendment is purely an educational campaign. But this can change. It can change quickly. A war with casualties, a recession, an energy crisis, an ecological catastrophe or two - these things can get people stirred up in no time; stirred up and ready to make a change. And these painful events are coming, coming because of the conflict between the limitless need of the corporate economy for growth and the limited ability of the resources of the earth to sustain that growth.

This issue is ideally suited for the Green Party principles and platform. If the Reform or Libertarian Parties also wanted to adopt it, there should be no problem working with them on this specific issue. (Well, maybe not the Reform Party - it seems to be fully occupied fighting itself at the moment.) We can be sure that neither the Democratic nor the Republican parties will support this Amendment in any way, since it would destroy the source of their money and their power.


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