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In The Public Interest: Shareholder Roles & Rights in the Brave New Post-Citizens United World

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It's a brave new world of corporate power, thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision, and corporations, in their newly clarified role as "persons," are gearing up to spend their profits freely in federal elections.

However, since the massive profits generated by corporations happen in part as a result of investments approved of by their shareholders, the new "license to spend" that corporations have been given by the Supreme Court raises several important questions.

Should shareholders have a say on whether or not their money is used for political purposes? And, should shareholders be informed of the use of their investments for political spending?

I believe that the answer to both questions is definitively "yes," and that the Shareholder Protection Act (H.R. 4537), legislation recently introduced by Rep. Mike Capuano (D-MA), is an important component of the critical legislative reaction to the Citizens United opinion.

The potential for increased corporate spending to flood our elections system in the wake of the decision presents real risks - both to American democracy and to shareholders.

And because investing has expanded over the past few decades - today, nearly one in every two American households owns stocks - when we talk about giving shareholders a say in how their money is spent, we are literally talking about the public, not an elite class of investors.

Unchecked corporate political spending is a threat to two key shareholder rights.

First, the right to a fair return on their investment, and secondly (and most ironically in the context of Citizens United), the first amendment right to remain silent in political debate or to support a candidate of their choosing. When a CEO chooses to use corporate money to support causes which may be antithetical to a given shareholder's wishes, in essence he or she is violating the shareholder's first amendment rights.

Rep. Capuano's Shareholder Protection Act is a key component of a wider solutions package to correct the Supreme Court's decision that Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) is planning to introduce. (See my previous column for details.) The Capuano bill will have a hearing next week, and will help stress the point that shareholders should have the right to approve corporate spending.

The idea that U.S. corporations can make unlimited political expenditures without giving its shareholders any knowledge of the spending or receiving their consent is an appalling one. Congress should quickly support Rep. Capuano's Shareholder Protection Act and work to attach it to Rep. Van Hollen legislative package, two pieces of legislation that are very clearly in the public interest.

We need to create a world where no one will ever have to wonder if their invested money is supporting a cause they don't believe in. The Shareholder Protection Act takes us one step in that direction.

VIDEO CONTEST - So, if Corporations are people...

Get your camcorders out!

The Student PIRGs, the student arm of the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups, is accepting entries for a video contest called So, if Corporations are people.... The goal of the contest is to highlight the dangerous implications of the Supreme Court's radical Citizen's United decision.

A corporation is not, nor has it ever been, a person with voting rights.

Corporations cannot get married, they cannot die, they are not denied alcohol purchase until age 18, and foreign corporations certainly don't need a VISA to work in the U.S.

The very idea that corporation can now channel their immense wealth to advocate directly for or against a federal candidate is abhorrent.

In the 2010 State of the Union address Obama said it well:

"Last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests - including foreign companies - to spend without limit in our elections. Well, I don't think American elections should be bankrolled by America's most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that's why I'm urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong."

The winning videos will be used to help decision-makers imagine what the world could be like if corporations were really treated like actual persons, both in political spending and in satire.

The videos will be a critical part of an effort to educate local and state representatives and to call on Washington to legislate a solution to the sweeping decision of the Supreme Court.

In addition to doing your part to better democracy, The Huffington Post will be featuring the winning video!

Entries are due by April 3rd. See the Student PIRG contest page for full contest rules, entry criteria, scope out your competition, and submit your video.