Needham has joined more than 45 other communities across Massachusetts in passing a resolution urging state legislators to seek an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would overturn the Supreme Court's controversial 2010 Citizens United decision.
Article 23 on the town’s was the first and only item to come up Monday night, May 14, when for a third time, following the conclusion of the May 2012 Special Town Meeting. After about an hour of discussion, Article 23 was brought to a voice vote, passing with majority support.
The article addresses the Supreme Court’s ruling, in the 2010 case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, by a vote of 5-4, that it was unconstitutional to limit how much money corporations could spend to influence elections—supporting a candidate or issue through television ads and other legal means. A proposed constitutional amendment would reverse that decision by clarifying that the First Amendment is not meant to protect the freedom of speech of for-profit corporations.
Article 23 urges Needham’s representatives in the Massachusetts state legislature to support a state resolution seeking such an amendment.
Nine residents spoke Monday in favor of the article, including Selectman Jerry Wasserman, who shared (selectmen voted 3-2 to recommend). Two Town Meeting members spoke against Article 23, saying that the national issue had no place at a local meeting, among other problems.
“If we pass this article, the floodgate will be open for every political issue of the day to take up our time…” said Precinct E member John Comando. “Do we really want to spend our time discussing superfluous issues like this warrant article, or do we want to spend our time on town business?”
Comando also felt the resolution was too vague and could allow for a constitutional amendment with “unintended consequences”—such as taking away the rights to free speech, assembly and due process of all “corporations”, including churches and other nonprofit organizations, under the U.S. Constitution.
Precinct D member Arthur Walitt said there were several “myths” about the impact of the Citizens United decision and that corporate influence on individual campaigns just doesn’t happen as opponents have stated.
After speaking for about a minute and a half beyond his allotted time, Walitt attempted to propose a motion to table Article 23 but was shut down by Town Moderator Michael Fee, who ruled that the motion was “out of order” because it was not made until Walitt’s time was up.
Proponents of Article 23 said they felt the Citizens United issue was as local as it gets and demanded a local opinion.
Precinct A member Karen Price said that Town Meeting had “a duty to stand up for the rights of the people” and was "the appropriate place to express our collective outrage, using our revered democratic institution to protect our American democracy.”
Already, 11 state attorney generals have called for a constitutional amendment, Price said, including Massachusetts’ Martha Coakley. In addition, four other states and 47 other cities and towns across the commonwealth have passed similar resolutions.
“We are in the message-sending phase,” Price said, noting that a bill on the issue could come up in the state legislature as early as this summer. “Now is the time to act.”
Wasserman said the topic was “certainly a state issue, and a Needham issue as well” that could affect state funding for cities and towns or mean passage of restrictive laws that overrule local bylaws.
“Constitutional amendments may seem to come from the top down, but they don’t get started without strong grassroots support,” Wasserman said. “Nothing is more grassroots than Town Meeting."
Precinct I member Lois Sockol spoke passionately about the possible impact of the Citizens United decision, which she said allowed “unlimited spending” for “unlimited power.”
“To treat corporations as people with an equal voice or vote seems almost ludicrous…” Sockol said.
Precinct H member Harmony Wu mentioned a visit from Needham’s Congressman Stephen Lynch last fall, during which and urged residents to push for a constitutional amendment. Wu asked Needham resident and State Representative Denise Garlick to speak on whether a local resolution would aid her as a legislator.
Speaking briefly, Garlick said that with or without a formal resolution, she could “think of nothing more helpful than the discussion taking place here tonight.”
The issue passed on a voice vote.
Town Meeting will reconvene on Wednesday, May 16 at Town Hall to take up the , including articles 30-32, 34, 36-37, and 39-41.