On Wednesday, Feb 22nd, the UDC-DCSL chapter of the American Constitution Society (ACS) sponsored "Corporations=People?," a panel discussion about corporate influence on politics and elections. Participants included Sean Siperstein, a legal fellow at Public Citizen’s Democracy is For People campaign who spoke about corporate influence on national elections and Mike Wilson, an organizer on D.C. Jobs with Justice’s Respect D.C. Campaign, who spoke about the influence of the world’s largest corporation, Wal-Mart, on D.C. community development policy and elections. The conversation was moderated by School of Law Alumni Director, Joe Libertelli. About 40 students and faculty attended and many asked engaging questions.
The event took place one month after the two year anniversary of the controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. F.E.C., which held that corporations have the same free speech rights as people - meaning that they can donate unlimited amounts of money to independent efforts that support electoral campaigns. Sean Siperstein spoke about that decision and its effects and described the national grassroots campaign to overturn the decision via constitutional amendment.
Given the School of Law's focus on city-specific public interest issues, ACS brought in local community organizer Mike Wilson to discuss the implications of Wal-Mart’s plans to open six new stores throughout the District. The Respect D.C. Campaign, a coalition of organizations, is calling for the Wal-Mart corporation to sign a community benefits agreement to ensure that it hires local residents, pays a living wage and respects community concerns. Wilson said that individuals connected to Wal-Mart have contributed large amounts to certain D.C. Council members supportive of the company’s plans to open stores in the city, with or without a community benefits agreement.
The Wal-Mart controversy has sparked local activists to propose a D.C. ballot initiative that will ban corporate donations to elected officials and the initiative. D.C. Attorney General Irv Nathan recently ruled that the proposed initiative does not conflict with the Citizens United decision so activists are now in the process of gathering signatures.