Reclaiming the Bill of Rights, Building a Movement

Published in the winter 2002-2003 issue of
By What Authority, the journal of the

Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy.

Jeff Milchen is the founder of ReclaimDemocracy.org, a young but increasingly influential organization in the Democracy Movement. Molly Morgan interviewed him about their strategy and campaigns.

BWA: What is the focus and mission of ReclaimDemocracy.org’s work?

Jeff Milchen: Well, our tagline is “Restoring Citizen Authority Over Corporations,” and like POCLAD we focus on effecting long-term structural change that cuts across many different issues. An ongoing part of our work is delivering radically democratic perspectives through mass media to people who don’t necessarily consider themselves radical or even progressive. We dissect current issues to expose how problems are rooted in the illegitimate power wielded by corporations and moneyed interests, and we try to show clearly how changing the system could directly improve people’s lives.

Another major component of our work is building concrete tools for change and replicable models that decentralize power so that average citizens and communities have more influence in the decisions that affect them. We think the more people experience democracy close to home, the more likely they are to value it and work to expand it. People across the political spectrum who may disagree on outcomes still have common goals in creating a more democratic society, but their differences may hide those shared interests. One reason is that so much of the “news” is alienating and disempowering — it obscures the work and impact of ordinary citizens while exaggerating the power of those in official positions.

BWA: How do you get your message out?

JM: Our media outreach has focused primarily on print media plus some talk radio programs. We’ve had significant success — from op-eds in mainstream newspapers like the Washington Post, Newsday, and the San Francisco Chronicle to strategy and solution-oriented pieces in publications like The Ecologist, Black World Today, and major Spanish-language newspapers like La Opinion and La Prensa. As an example of how revoking illegitimate corporate power concerns people across the political spectrum, our work has been written up in business magazines and conservative tabloids like American Free Press as well as progressive magazines like Utne Reader.

BWA: Describe your campaign to revoke corporate free speech.

JM: We’re helping to instigate what we hope will be the broad national coalition necessary to put this issue on the radar screen. We believe that corporate free speech is a desecration of our Constitution and that this is an especially good time to generate public debate about it because a case called Nike v. Kasky stands an excellent chance of being reviewed by the Supreme Court in 2003. The case centers around the issue of commercial speech — a category of communication created by the Court.

The Supreme Court is a political institution that responds to major shifts in public opinion. Our goal is to use Kasky to make the issue of corporate free speech a high-profile controversy, framed as a matter of justice, like other struggles for civil rights. We need huge numbers of citizens generating pressure on our courts and influencing their thinking, and it’s a challenge because the injustice is less direct and obvious than for other abuses of our rights.

Our initial focus in this effort is on the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). We want to persuade their leaders that their mission to defend civil liberties for human beings is undermined by their consistent support of corporate “rights.” This is especially disturbing when our civil liberties are under siege by the Bush Administration and Congress. The ACLU also expends resources to oppose most significant campaign reform efforts by supporting the doctrine that spending money to influence elections is protected “free speech.”

Our position is that all communication by for-profit corporations is inherently commercial speech and that no constitutional protection exists — it’s up to We the People, working through our democratic institutions, to decide what privileges commercial entities should enjoy. The Bill of Rights was intended to protect only human beings, but previous Courts have claimed that speech itself is protected by the First Amendment — that a thing is protected rather than the right of a person — which goes against any reasonable interpretation of the Bill of Rights.

BWA: Wouldn’t revoking corporate free speech diminish the First Amendment and limit opportunities for organizations like the ACLU and ReclaimDemocracy.org to speak?

JM: No. The Supreme Court has distinguished explicitly between advocacy groups and profit-centered corporations in two cases: Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990) and FEC v. Massachusetts Citizens For Life (1986). In FEC, the majority said: “Massachusetts Citizens For Life was formed to disseminate political ideas, not to amass capital. The resources it has available are not a function of its success in the economic marketplace, but its popularity in the political marketplace.”

It’s worth noting that in colonial times, the word “speech” often described discourse — an interactive communication, as in, “I’d like to have a speech with you.” The Constitution writers likely wanted to protect dialogue, not just broadcasting one’s views. How can people dialogue with something like the Nike Corporation, which has no mouth or ears, let alone a mind?

Restoring a reasonable definition of free speech would actually amplify the voice of small organizations like ours with a genuine human constituency. Individual citizens and grassroots organizations can never speak as loudly with our own voices as corporations can with the unlimited amplification of money. But if our relative impact corresponded to the quality of our ideas and how effectively we worked to promote them, rather than how much money we spend, we’d have a very different country.

Of course, corporate speech has been key to amassing wealth and power for corporations, and their hirelings will fight to retain it. Public relations departments will churn out messages framing corporations as the defenders of liberty. Corporate lawyers will argue about slippery slopes and the freedom of speech being sacrosanct. They’ll say even speech we don’t like needs to be protected and use examples of unpopular speakers like the Ku Klux Klan. Our work is to properly frame the debate: the Constitution protects the rights of human beings, not things, and only people have rights to free speech. The popularity of a speaker is not an issue, but the speaker’s humanity is!

BWA: How does corporate free speech affect public policy?

JM: Virtually every issue of consequence is affected by the illegitimate influence of corporations derailing democracy, but here’s one: both of the dominant political parties constantly espouse the value of “free trade,” yet they pass laws that preclude or destroy competition in countless industries. Take pharmaceuticals. The government creates and enforces monopolies [patents] on drugs, not for the benefit of taxpayers who fund the development of two-thirds of the most medically significant drugs, but for corporations. As a result, Bristol-Meyers-Squibb Corporation can gouge cancer victims for 20 times the production cost of its patented drug, Taxol. Did cancer patients and citizens have an opportunity to participate in the decision to give away the patent? Hell, no. We were never even informed that we paid for its development!

Squibb exercises its “speech” by spending millions for paid lobbyists in Washington, who shape issues and frame debate in ways that bypass the most critical questions entirely. This is why we never hear ideas like “let’s keep public control of these drugs and contract a corporation to produce it at a modest profit.” As long as we allow corporate wealth to translate readily into political power, these abuses of the public interest will be the norm.

BWA: What kinds of positive alternatives to corporate power do you work to create?

JM: Ultimately, corporate power comes from a single source — our money — so we work to divert money and power away from absentee-owned corporations and toward community businesses that are locally rooted. It’s tough to hide from the consequences of your business decisions when they have a visible impact on your neighbors and the town you live in. We show people that there are many alternatives to giant corporations — that, in most cases, local businesses can provide the bulk of communities’ needs and do it as well or better.

A few years ago we started the Boulder [Colorado] Independent Business Alliance (BIBA) with the goal of helping the community to stop chainstores from continuing to displace local businesses. We organized collaborative campaigns funded by independent local businesses, including public education, direct pooling of resources for group purchasing and marketing, and political organizing to promote local policies favoring community-rooted businesses. BIBA opened a lot of doors for democratic conversations that included many people and organizations who would have been difficult to engage through, say, POCLAD or ReclaimDemocracy.org.

We consciously worked to develop a model that others could employ, and last year we launched the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) to help other communities use it. There are four more IBAs now with substantial paying memberships — Salt Lake City, Utah; Corvallis, Oregon; Austin, Texas and Santa Fe, New Mexico– and several other communities are in earlier stages of organizing. We’re helping to seed and connect these groups to build a national network that eventually will change trends on a larger scale.

I believe that owners of farms and other small businesses are essential to the success of the Democracy Movement. These folks know as well as anyone how destructive giant corporations can be, but not only have most activists failed to forge alliances with small-business owners, we tend to alienate them with broad-brush attacks on business. Sloppy use of language like “business interests” does great harm to our cause.

A long-term goal of ours is to develop a powerful counterforce to entities like the US Chamber of Commerce, which gains its legitimacy from thousands of small member businesses, but actually exploits them to promote the agenda of the transnationals that drive its agenda. We should seize the label of “pro-business” for ourselves, making it clear what kind of business we’re for and why. After all, small-business owners already know that “corporate speech” only helps those big enough to hire lobbyists and public relations firms.

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