Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

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Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is a United States Supreme Court case involving Citizens United, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, and whether the group's film critical of a political candidate could be defined as an "electioneering communication" under the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, also known as the McCain-Feingold Act.[1] Decided in 2010, in a 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court held that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited, because doing so would be in noncompliance with the First Amendment.[1]

The Court's decision struck down a provision of the McCain-Feingold Act that banned for-profit and not-for-profit corporations and unions from broadcasting “electioneering communications” in the 30 days before a presidential primary and in the 60 days before the general elections.[1] The decision overruled Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990) and partially overruled McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003).[2] The decision upheld, however, the requirements for disclaimer and disclosure by sponsors of advertisements, and the ban on direct contributions from corporations or unions to candidates.[3]


Congressman Jim Greenwood joins (left to right) Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold and Representatives Tim Roemer and Ellen Tauscher to endorse the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation.

The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) banned the airing of "electioneering communications," defined as a broadcast, cable, or satellite communication mentioning a candidate, within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary. It also prohibited corporations (and nonprofit organizations) and unions from making expenditures on such communications.[4]


Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
Year: 2010
Court: United States Supreme Court
Important Dates
Argued March 24, 2009
Reargued September 9, 2009
Decided January 21, 2010
Court membership
Chief Justice
John G. Roberts
Associate Justices
John P. StevensAntonin Scalia
Anthony KennedyClarence Thomas
Ruth Bader GinsburgSteven G. Breyer
Samuel AlitoSonia Sotomayor

The majority opinion, which was delivered by Justice Anthony Kennedy, found that section §441b of the Federal Election Campaign Act's restrictions on expenditures were invalid and could not be applied to spending like that in the film in question. Kennedy wrote: "If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech." He noted that since there was no way to distinguish between media and other corporations, these restrictions would allow Congress to suppress political speech in newspapers, books, television and blogs.[1] The Court overruled Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce which had previously held that a Michigan Campaign Finance act that prohibited corporations from using treasury money to support or oppose candidates in elections did not violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court also overruled the part of McConnell v. Federal Election Commission that upheld the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act §203's extension of the Federal Election Campaign Act §441b's restrictions on independent corporate expenditures.

The Court found that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act §§201 and 311 were valid as applied to the ads for Hillary and to the movie itself.

Anthony Kennedy led the majority opinion along with John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Antonin Scalia. Justice John Paul Stevens led the dissenting opinion and was joined by Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer.[5]


The Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment right to free speech applies to corporations and thus the government cannot limit their political spending.[6] Citizens United argued that their film Hillary: The Movie was not electioneering and therefore not subject to the McCain-Feingold Act of prohibition against corporate advertising. The court ultimately ruled in favor of the Citizens United on the basis of free speech.[7]

This case brought to the forefront discussion about whether or not First Amendment rights--free speech--apply to a corporation. In Justice Stevens' dissent he cited Trustees of Dartmouth College v Woodward (1819) in support of the argument that the First Amendment does not extend to corporations, with the exception of the "institutional press." Other, however, including Mark J. Fitzgibbons, a Virginia attorney writing in the American Thinker, argued that Stevens' reasoning contradicts the cited case. Fitzgibbons noted that, "Justice Stevens' conclusion that the sovereign may interfere with First Amendment or other rights of privately founded and financed corporations because they are 'artificial' creations is not only absent in the Trustees of Dartmouth College decision, but it is contradictory to it."[8][9]



Critics of the Supreme Court's decision argue that the ruling allows "unlimited amounts of special interest money" in political campaigns. However, others contend that because federal disclosure requirements remain in place corporations will carefully "consider the reputational risks associated with electoral endeavors."[10] The court's ruling does not impact the requirement to report campaign contributions, therefore disclosure of corporation spending on political campaigns "will enable voters to draw appropriate conclusions."[6]

Cato Institute researchers John Samples and Ilya Shapiro wrote that restrictions on advertising were based on the idea “that corporations had so much money that their spending would create vast inequalities in speech that would undermine democracy.” However, “to make campaign spending equal or nearly so, the government would have to force some people or groups to spend less than they wished. And equality of speech is inherently contrary to protecting speech from government restraint, which is ultimately the heart of American conceptions of free speech.”[11] Justice Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, "With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide...citizens with the information needed to hold...elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters."[12]

Personal Privacy

In addition to the campaign finance ruling, the Supreme Court upheld current laws that require disclosure of political donors. However, some argue that the First Amendment documents the rights to both political speech and anonymity or personal privacy. Additionally, advocates for personal privacy argue that citizens have the right to "express themselves through donations and feel safe that their political speech will remain private."[12] According to some arguments, disclosure filings can lead to "harassment and intimidation" of donors.[13]

At the time that Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was decided, a notable case in the State of Washington was pending before the United States Supreme Court on the very issue of personal privacy, specifically on petition signature privacy. Donors of ballot measures both supporting and objecting to gay marriage or domestic partnership rights, for example, have claimed to have faced situations of harassment. An example of this was seen in Maine's 2009 Same-Sex Marriage People's Veto, Question 1 after a fundraising complaint was filed against the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). NOM argued that their company policy is to collect funds and then submit the donations to a particular campaign so as to protect donors from harassment.[14]


President Barack Obama criticized the ruling, commenting that, "With all due deference to the separation of powers the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests - including foreign corporations - to spend without limit in our elections.[15][16][17] The Wall Street Journal argued that Obama's statement about the Supreme Court decision allowing for "foreign corporations to spend without limit" was untrue.[18][19]

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See also

External links

Additional reading


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 New York Times, "Justices, 5-4, Reject Corporate Spending Limit," January 21, 2010
  2. Slate, "Money Grubbers: The Supreme Court kills campaign finance reform," January 21, 2010
  3. National Journal Online, "Court Unlikely To Stop With Citizens United." January 21, 2010
  4. Federal Election Commission, "Major provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002," accessed March 31, 2016
  5. "Washington Post" Supreme Court rolls back campaign spending limits, January 21, 2010
  6. 6.0 6.1 The Washington Post, "Campaign finance: a 'reform' wisely struck down," January 28, 2010
  7. The Citizen of Laconia, "Transparency the answer to political spending," January 25, 2010
  8. American Thinker, "A Dangerous Dissent on Citizens United," January 28, 2010
  9. Washington Examiner, "Ill wind blows for political speech from Stevens' Citizens United dissent," January 28, 2010
  10. The Weekly Standard, "How the Citizens United Court Decision Will Impact 2010 Election," January 28, 2010
  11. Cato Institute, "Free Speech for All," January 21, 2010
  12. 12.0 12.1 Sunshinereview Blog, "Citizens United, transparency, and privacy," January 25, 2010 (dead link)
  13. Southern California Public Radio, "Supreme Court Left Donor Disclosure Rules Intact," January 25, 2010 (dead link)
  14. Associated Press, "Maine marriage campaign probe gets OK," October 1, 2009
  15. The New York Times, "Obama Picked Odd Time and Place to Jab High Court," January 28, 2010
  16. CNN Political Ticker, "Obama Criticizes Campaign Finance Ruling," January 20, 2010
  17. Huffington Post, "President Blasts Supreme Court Over Citizens United Decision," January 23, 2010
  18. Associated Press, "Biden Defends Obama's Criticism of High Court," January 28, 2010
  19. Wall Street Journal, "Obama Owes the High Court an Apology," January 28, 2010
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