A group of Needham residents is asking Town Meeting to join organizations and individuals across the country in calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, saying the 2010 Supreme Court ruling allows unions and corporations to corrupt the legislative process at all levels.
On Wednesday, April 11, supporters explained their reasons behind submitting a citizen’s petition on the issue for the May 7 annual Town Meeting. Petitioners Stacie Shapiro, Bob Smart and others collected the signatures of more than 100 registered Needham voters in order to place the article on the warrant.
If Town Meeting approved the article, the voting body would call upon the Massachusetts state legislature to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that overturns the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision of 2010.
In that 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to put any limits on how much money corporations could spend to influence elections—supporting a candidate or issue through television ads and other means.
The 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.
Smart said the local petition would “light a fire” under legislators to act on the issue.
“I have been a Town Meeting member since the early 1980s, and I haven’t seen something comparable to this [the Citizens United issue] in that period of time,” Smart said. “Constitutional amendments just don’t come along that often.”
Though it does not deal directly with Needham, the amendment has the potential to impact government and elections at all levels, Smart noted.
In addition, Town Meeting has not always been merely devoted to local issues.
“In the Colonial period, shortly before the American Revolution, Town Meetings in Needham and elsewhere were really the place where the American Revolution began,” Smart said. “This is where the grievances against King George and the British rule were articulated.”
The speeches made and resolutions adopted in Massachusetts “so irritated King George” that he had Parliament pass a law prohibiting Town Meetings in Massachusetts to take up anything for discussion unless it was first approved by the British government, Smart said.
“I don’t think we should have that kind of gag rule for ourselves,” he said.
Selectman Moe Handel said the overturn of Citizens United was not a partisan issue, instead drawing support from people who come from a wide range of backgrounds and have various political leanings.
Selectman Jerry Wasserman also felt the issue had broad support and should be addressed at Town Meeting.
“I think this is about as local as you can get, because it will affect every level of government,” Wasserman said. “So we have to decide whether we want to support it or not.”
Selectman Matt Borrelli, sitting in on his first meeting since on Tuesday, said he was “troubled” by the precedent it might set to vote on a national issue at Town Meeting—could other issues before the Supreme Court, such as the healthcare bill, be brought up at future meetings?
“It’s almost like we’re playing politics within our Town Meeting,” he said.
Selectmen did not decide whether or not to support the citizen’s petition article, saying they would wait until their next meeting on Tuesday, April 24—when the article’s official language should be ready—before taking a vote.
Additional information about the citizen’s petition article and the local movement to overturn the Citizens United decision can be found online at wethepeopleneedham.wordpress.com.