A question of money and speech

Referendum seeks the first step in curtailing Citizens United

All the talk in Massachusetts about the referendums before voters next month focuses on Questions 1 and 3, with little acknowledgement that there’s a number missing in between.

However, unlike the other ballot questions which seek to create or maintain state laws, Question 2 would launch that most typical Bay State of creatures, a commission to talk about changing the US Constitution. But while the referendum is about process, the underlying motive is the hot button issue of campaign finance and, more specifically, overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates for corporate money to influence elections.

“The government’s no longer in our control; it’s in control of people with deep pockets,” said David Ropeik, the former reporter for WCVB-TV (Channel 5) who is now a member of the Yes on 2 campaign and who joined The Codcast to talk about the question.

If voters approve the question, the state would form a citizens commission to review both the Supreme Court ruling and the Constitution. They would then propose changes that would take away recognition of “corporate personhood,” which the court has historically recognized.

Ropeik admits the ballot question is a “small ask” and is an incremental step. But Bradley Smith, the former head of the Federal Elections Commission who also appeared on the Codcast, says it’s a slippery slope in changing the First David Ropeik Amendment and giving government control over whose voice can be heard.

“It’s not just about the corporation to speak, it’s about the right for voters to hear different views and to act on views they hear,” said Smith, a law professor and founder of the nonprofit Institute for Free Speech in Virginia.

Massachusetts would join three other states – Vermont, California, and Illinois – in officially launching the process to add one or more amendments to the Constitution. Legislatures in 16 other states, including Massachusetts, have passed nonbinding resolutions to amend the Constitution. Massachusetts state law, which was upheld last month by a Supreme Judicial Court decision, prohibits corporate donations to state political campaigns.

Ropeik, who is a consultant on risk perception, said Question 2 is not solely about taking away the right of corporations to be involved in the political process but leveling the playing field for both sides of the ideological divide.

“This would only limit it to a degree where everybody has equality of speech,” Ropeik insisted, citing deep-pocketed Democratic corporate donors whose contributions allow them access for progressive causes as well. “Unequal money gives unequal influence.”

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

Smith acknowledged more money gives some advocates a louder voice than others. But he says the constitution wasn’t designed to make everyone equal in anything except rights.

“Sure, people who have money have a bigger megaphone to get their message out,” said Smith, who pointed out his job allows him to travel the country and get paid to offer his opinion on issues. “Lots of people have lots of differences that enables them to do different things… We’re not all equal.”