Incompetent Elected Official of the Month: Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.)

Rep. Jim McGovern is the champion of the People’s Rights Amendment, which shows that some people are so violently opposed to the Citizens United ruling that they would be willing to give the government sweeping power to censor speech, political or otherwise. This Pandora’s box of an amendment states:

Section 1.  We the people who ordain and establish this Constitution intend the rights protected by this Constitution to be the rights of natural persons.

Section 2.  People, person, or persons as used in this Constitution does not include corporations, limited liability companies or other corporate entities established by the laws of any state, the United States, or any foreign state, and such corporate entities are subject to such regulation as the people, through their elected state and federal representatives, deem reasonable and are otherwise consistent with the powers of Congress and the States under this Constitution.

Section 3.  Nothing contained herein shall be construed to limit the people’s rights of freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free exercise of religion, and such other rights of the people, which rights are inalienable.

This is playing with Constitutional fire, designed to appeal to gullible citizens who don’t understand how the Constitution limits government power and the danger of  making simple-minded fixes. Prof. Eugene Volokh, an expert on Constitutional law, writes,

“So just as Congress could therefore ban the speech of nonmedia business corporations, it could ban publications by corporate-run newspapers and magazines — which I think includes nearly all such newspapers and magazines in the country (and for good reason, since organizing a major publications as a partnership or sole proprietorship would make it much harder for it to get investors and to operate). Nor does this proposal leave room for the possibility, in my view dubious, that the Free Press Clause would protect newspapers organized by corporations but not other corporations that want to use mass communications technology. Section 3 makes clear that the preservation of the “freedom of the press” applies only to “the people,” and section 2 expressly provides that corporations aren’t protected as “the people.”

“Congress could also ban the speech and religious practice of most churches, which are generally organized as corporation. It could ban the speech of nonprofit organizations that are organized as corporations…Congress could ban speech about elections and any other speech, whether about religion, politics, or anything else. It could also ban speech in viewpoint-based ways. State legislatures and local governments could do the same. All of them could seize corporate property without providing compensation, and without providing due process. All corporate entities would be stripped of all constitutional rights.”

Occupy protestors making such irresponsible proposals are one thing: they are permitted hyperbole in the pursuit of debate. A member of Congress being so ignorant regarding the importance of organizations, voluntary associations and legal entities having rights of speech and due process is far, far worse. It shows a lack of comprehension of the roots of American democracy, or a contempt for it, that seeks support by exploiting the ignorance of voters.

No competent Representative would make such a suicidal proposal, and no responsible Representative would support it.  As a result, Rep. McGovern might be doing his country a service by sponsoring it. If it comes to a vote, the dimmest of the dim on Capitol Hill will have revealed themselves.


Filed under Citizenship, Government & Politics, Incompetent Elected Officials, Leadership

7 responses to “Incompetent Elected Official of the Month: Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.)

  1. Eric Monkman

    If the People’s Rights amendment were enacted, Congress could do some of the bad things that are described by Professor Volokh, but is there any evidence that they would do any of them? I’m not sure that the People’s Rights Amendment is the best way of overturning Citizens United (if that is what one wants to achieve) but I don’t think that the consequences of said amendment would be as bad as you think.

    • That’s a lot of faith you have in the good will of the powerful, Eric. The idea behind the Constitution is not to let basic rights rely on the whims of elected officials. The Founders had reason not to trust government to do the right thing, and so do we.

      • Eric Monkman

        I’m Canadian, so my approach to the government is a bit different. I do trust government to generally do the right thing, as, in a democracy, they usually reflect the will and desires of the majority, and the majority want their rights protected. Where a constitutionally entrenched bill of rights becomes necessary is for the protection of unpopular minorities. By their very nature, corporations are usually not “unpopular minorities” (at least not in capitalist societies). For-profit corporations practice no religion, cannot be racial minorities and generally do not hold politically unpopular opinions (public corporations really hold none except that it is the highest good to maximize their profits in any legally allowable way). The ownership structure of publicly traded corporations also provides them with protection as they are often owned by a wide spectrum of the public (although, for many people, their ownership would be in the form of their pension funds, rather than direct ownership of shares).

        I’ll admit that not-for-profit corporations are an exception, and that some of them could be considered “unpopular minorities” (especially religious institutions of minority religions). I think failing to protect their rights would be a major flaw with the People’s Rights Amendment, unless it were interpreted in such a way that these organizations were protected not because they are juridical persons but because they are the instruments that natural persons use to exercise their rights. For example, you could say that religious organizations are free from government intervention because that freedom is necessary for natural persons to enjoy their religious rights (you could extend this idea to include media organizations as a necessary instrument for freedom of speech, even though many media organizations are for-profit corporations). I would analogize it to unreasonable searches of houses. The police cannot search my house without a warrant or other reasonable grounds to do so not because my house is a person with rights but because the protection of my house is necessary for the protection of my right as a person to be free of unreasonable searches.

  2. Bud Jung

    Hi Eric,
    The United States is a Democratic Republic. The difference is not as subtle as you think. The whole reason for our Republic is to remove the citizen from mob rule, which is what a Democracy is.
    Rather then try to add layers to an already existing constitution and bill of rights, I think it is better to just go back to basics.
    The Founders of the United States have created a unique experiment of self governance that is slowly being erroded from within. This Peoples Right “amamndment” is another indication of either a willfull manipulation, or ignorance on behalf of our elected officials. When it comes to government,…less is better.


    • Eric Monkman

      Yes, right, but the Founders did include an amendment process for the Constitution, and few would deny that some amendments have been good ones.

      As for the size of government, it is all well and good to say that government should refrain from interfering in people’s lives as far as possible, but are corporations really the people that one would be referring to. After all, corporations are creations of government. They probably weren’t what Thomas Jefferson et al. were referring to when they referred to men being “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”. Given that it is the government that creates them and gives them their rights, don’t you think that the government has a duty to regulate them as well? So far, granting them most of the rights of human beings has been a good way of doing so (it’s convenient and encourages company formation). This is not to say that there are no better ways of doing so (whether through the People’s Amendment and separate company law that grants corporations statutory rights or another method).



      • Organizations are the means where by people gather together to express and exercise their rights. The Founders valued the rights of property as much as any others. I wouldn’t be so certain that extending the basic rights to organizations wasn’t anticipated by the founders, because individual rights are not protected unless they are protected too.

        • Eric Monkman

          You can protect the ability of organizations to do things without granting them the same rights as people. If I write a political statement on a sign, the sign can be protected from government interference not because it has rights as a person but because it is the instrument through which I exercise my right to freedom of expression (or speech, as you would call it).

          To go back to the example that created this whole debate, look at corporate speech before an election. If corporations were not automatically given the rights of people, then one would have to examine whether a certain corporation’s speech does in fact further the rights of a natural person to express their opinions before an election. For a non-profit corporation founded by citizens to convey a certain message, it is clear that the corporation is an instrument through which those citizens exercise their right to freedom of speech. What about for-profit corporations, though? If I buy some shares in a for-profit corporation, I am probably doing it as an investment. Can the corporation really be seen as an instrument through which I am expressing myself? I could own shares in a company whose board and executives I disagree with, and this could be rational and even a good thing, economically. This need not even be hypocritical. For example, I could believe that the government should impose tighter emissions standards on automobiles and that, by doing so, they will make North American automobiles more competitive internationally. If this were the case, and such standards would be coming, then I should invest in automobile companies, even if their management is lobbying against the new standards.

          If corporations have all the same rights as individuals, then legislators cannot make this distinction between non-profit corporations financed by individual donations and for-profit corporations. If the People’s Rights amendment were in force, then legislatures could restrict the speech of corporations whose speech is not the instrument through which natural people expressed themselves, if that is indeed what legislators wished to do.

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