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Fri., April 26, 2013

Editorial: Editorial: Initiative 4 scattershot on speech

Initiatives 2012-3 and 2012-4 are wrong for Spokane, and for the U.S. Constitution.

In the case of Initiative 4, alarmingly so.

A new group called Spokane Moves to Amend the Constitution has submitted “A voter bill of rights: a clean and fair election and government ordinance” that would reverse U.S. Supreme Court findings that corporations are individuals, and that money is constitutionally protected free speech.

While those rulings are troublesome in many respects, a city law that would strip corporations of First Amendment and Fifth Amendment protections should chill anyone who understands the implications of selectively depriving anyone – individual or business – “of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” – words taken directly from the Fifth.

Violators, including corporate officers, directors, managers or “individuals purporting to communicate on behalf of a corporation,” could be found guilty of a criminal offense under the Spokane municipal code. Prosecuted, that is, for exercising their constitutional rights.

These individuals would enjoy the right of speech only in a public forum, like a City Council meeting. All other communication would be prohibited as “lobbying.”

Consider: Is an employee concerned that a proposed ordinance might force her or his employer to close communicating on behalf of a corporation, and therefore prohibited from talking to their city councilman except in a public forum? No telephone calls? No emails? No tweets?

Campaign contributions need not be cash, they could be “in-kind,” so no phone banks or distributing yard signs.

The initiative does not mention unions, and Move to Amend’s organizer says it’s unclear as to whether his proposal would apply to organized labor. The Supreme Court made no such distinction: Corporations and unions enjoy the same rights.

And only money expended within the city of Spokane would not be considered constitutionally protected speech. Spend it at a radio station outside the city limits but broadcasting all over the area? That’s OK.

No. That’s absurd.

Limiting constitutional rights is very dangerous business, which is one reason why the Supreme Court has preserved them for corporate “persons.”

The City Council has several alternatives when deciding what to do with an initiative. In the past, we have recommended the council put them on the ballot. But if five council members determine an initiative petition is “legally invalid,” they need not do so. We do not see that they can reach any other conclusion regarding Initiative 4.

Initiative 3, on the other hand, would broadly extend rights and protections for citizens and resources.

The Community Bill of Rights has been rejected by city voters twice before, in 2011 by much too close a margin. We have opposed the initiative before, judging it economic cyanide for all but the lawyers challenging its provisions, but it belonged on the ballot.

Although it would exclude corporations from personhood under the City Charter – probably constitutional folly – this measure will likely keep coming back until killed by the courts, or voters give it a deep burial.

The council should let it go forward.

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

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