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Corporate ‘speech’ is drowning out citizen activists

By financial journalist LEWIS BRAHAM

At the more than 10-hour “public hearing” on the construction of the Shell petrochemical plant in Potter Township last December, I waited eight hours to speak for five minutes about the plant’s environmental risks. The meeting was so long and grueling that one of my colleagues at Allegheny County Clean Air Now collapsed and had to be helped by emergency medical technicians. She didn’t get to testify, nor did many local Beaver County residents who left in frustration before they had the chance.

The reason for the meeting’s length was that Shell’s lawyers and expert witnesses spoke for six and a half hours prior to the floor being opened to the general public. Meanwhile, Potter supervisors restricted ordinary citizens to five-minute statements. At the time, I noted in my testimony that Royal Dutch Shell isn’t a citizen of Western Pennsylvania or even a person, but a corporation domiciled in the Netherlands. Why should its freedom of speech take precedence over ours at a public hearing?

This experience is not isolated but illustrative of a nationwide trend. As the parameters of corporate speech have expanded, individuals’ First Amendment rights have shrunk.

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Lewis Braham is a freelance financial writer and the author of “The House That Bogle Built: How John Bogle and Vanguard Reinvented the Mutual Fund Industry.” He lives in Regent Square.

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