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Norbert Bufka

Author  ยท  Historian

Distorted property views are serious threat to democracy

In early October my wife and I visited the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. In anticipation of that I began reading Chesapeake by James Michener. It was fascinating to tour the area Michener described so well from several hundred years ago to today. In the midst of his accounts of watermen, plantation owners, and ship building families, he wrote about a waterman who became a slave trader. His details were graphic.

Dred Scott case

In the middle of this slave trade the United States Supreme Court handed down the landmark decision (7-2 vote) in 1857 in the Dred Scott case. The decision declared not only was Dred Scott not a citizen but that African-Americans, whether slave or free, could not be American citizens and therefore had no civil rights. They were declared to be property of the slave owners. It took the bloodiest war in our history to change that decision which is now widely regarded as the worst decision ever made by the Supreme Court. [i]

In this decision the Supreme Court held property rights higher than human rights, a mistake with tragic consequences.

Citizens United

In 2010 the Supreme Court decided in the Citizens United case that corporations had the right of free speech that is guaranteed under the First Amendment. In effect this decision declared that a corporation is a person. A corporation is property, not a person. Here is another case of distorting the meaning of property. [ii]

Hobby Lobby case

The Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, is using the Citizens United case as a basis for their case before the Supreme Court. The Greens are claiming that their corporation, as a person,  has freedom of religion under the First Amendment, and so should not be required to provide contraceptive health care in their employees’ insurance. Here’s an example of how misguided the Citizens United decision was. A corporation, a legal form of property, is not a person and must not be given rights that only belong to people.[iii]

McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission

In the 2012 campaign,  Shaun McCutcheon gave to various political candidates and committees, and wanted to contribute more than the aggregate limit under the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA). He argued that that FECA’s aggregate limits violate his First Amendment rights of association and expression. [iv]

Mr. McCutcheon, while not challenging the base limits, makes this simple argument: since he is limited to contributing a modest amount to any single candidate, an amount which Congress itself found to be non-corrupting, on what basis may the government limit the total number of contributions he can make? [v]

Money is property. While there is a popular phrase that says “money talks”, the reality is that it is the person who has the money who is talking. The Court in this case is being asked to give free speech rights to property or give more free speech rights to those who have more property. This situation is always a dilemma in a democracy but it makes no sense to give freedom of speech to money!

State Sen. Arlan Meekhof introduced Senate Bill 661 in the Michigan Senate that would double the allowances for contributions in political campaigns. While there is no argument over free speech rights in this case yet this is an example of those with more money having the ability to use their property to enhance their free speech. The bill also provides that the money donated to candidates will not be subject to public disclosure and scrutiny. [vi]

It is hard to believe that the Supreme Court is interpreting the Constitution in a way that does not promote personal liberty but rather corporate interests. At the heart of all American values is the individual who has a high interest in the common good of all. The above decisions, pending cases and laws subvert that personal freedom. What will it take to reverse these latest trends in giving property the status of person with rights that belong only to people and citizens? Will it take another bloody civil war to correct these injustices? I certainly hope not.

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