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Our two-tiered citizenship – that’s you on the bottom

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Smart v. Stupid

Our two-tiered citizenship – that’s you on the bottom

Corporations are free to lobby against your interests – and to fire you if you fight back

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The short suspension of MSNBC on-air personality Keith Olberman is over. He was suspended for making candidate donations without the permission of his MSNBC boss, Phil Griffin. The public reaction to the Olberman suspension was nuclear, and the NBC walk back was lickety-split. But during his victory lap (on last Tuesday’s Countdown,) Olberman made one important mistake – he called NBC’s donation rule “probably not legal.”

GE, owners of MSNBC donated over $1.5 million politicians on both sides of the aisle. There may be more, but the Supreme Court recently ruled that we no longer have a right to know. The Court says its Citizens United ruling merely puts corporations on equal footing with citizens -- a nutty goal even if that were the extent of it. But it does much more.

At first blush Olberman’s point might have seemed obvious. What right does an employer have to require you to disclose your private political donations, “in advance” or afterwards? And a requirement for “permission” seems to fly in the face of the very notion of free expression, doesn’t it?

But that’s not how the law sees it. Well-settled law allows your employer to make most any rule it wants, thanks to a doctrine called “At-Will Employment.” In thirty-seven states (including Arizona) and the District of Columbia, employers are free to fire any employee whose politics differs from the company line. Under At-Will, It is perfectly legal to terminate your employment if your employer considers you ugly or doesn’t like your lipstick. An employer can dictate which side you must part your hair, and fire you if you don’t comply. An employer can fire you just before you like to watch Keith Olberman. It’s perfectly legal.

This principle of law (combined with the Supreme Court decision) leads to an overwhelming advantage for corporations -- they both have free speech and have a free right to stifle others. Corporations are effectively granted superior status, simply because they can tell you to “shut up or be fired.”

When you add this to the substantial money advantage enjoyed by corporations, the regular guy just can’t compete.

Say, for example, your employer wants to promote a policy that’s not in your best interest, like stopping health reform, privatizing Social Security, or raising the retirement age. All of these policies are good for business because they increase the number of job seekers. A bigger labor pool leads to lower wages for everyone. Most workers would agree that lower pay is bad for families – and be inclined to work against it. But given choices of speaking up and losing a job, or staying quiet and keeping one, which is an average family likely to pick?

The very idea that corporations have personhood regarding free speech is a far-reaching bastardization of the Doctrine of Corporate Personhood. “Personhood” surrogacy was originally granted to corporations simply so they could make enforceable contracts with actual people. But when combined with At-Will Employment, the new SCOTUS ruling simply tips the scales too far. What’s next – voting rights for the Fortune 500?

If Citizens United is to remain the law of the land, it must be accompanied by new protections for the free speech of workers. If not, real people are destined to become a lower class of citizen and corporations will enjoy rights and freedoms not available to working stiffs.

Our Constitution quite specifically prohibits unequal protection. Two-tiered citizenship is as un-American as racial discrimination.

In a world where corporations are free to buy “the best government they can afford,” citizens must be equally free to oppose them. When individual rights are subordinate, democracy becomes “Corporatocracy,” a political system that failed spectacularly when tried by a guy named Benito Mussolini.

Hey Keith, we could sure use a special comment about that!

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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