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What was Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission?

US Supreme Court Phil Roeder / Flickr

In Brief

In 2010, the Supreme Court case Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission overturned the ban on certain types of corporate expenditures for political candidates. This brief outlines campaign spending regulations before Citizens United, the details of the case, and the final decision.

Background: Campaign Spending Regulations Before Citizens United

Prior to Citizens United, campaign spending was regulated by the Federal Election Campaign Act and amended by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. These laws prohibited corporations from spending money on independent expenditures or financing electioneering communications.

  • Independent expenditures are funds spent on communications that expressly advocate for the election or defeat of a clearly-identified candidate. These communications are made entirely independently of a candidate or political party’s authorization, cooperation, request, or suggestion. In other words, the party paying for the communication is operating entirely on its own.
  • Electioneering communications are any broadcast, cable, or satellite communications that do all of the following:
    • Refer to a clearly-identified candidate for federal office;
    • Are publicly distributed shortly before the relevant election; and
    • Are targeted to the relevant electorate (this applies to U.S. House and Senate candidates only).

Prior to Citizens United, the Supreme Court upheld the ban on corporate independent expenditures in Austin v. Michigan State Chamber of Commerce (1990) and the ban on corporate spending for electioneering communications in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003). Citizens United struck down those provisions in the law and overturned Austin and McConnell.

Citizens United’s Argument

In 2008, Citizens United, a nonprofit membership corporation that produces political films, created and released a film about Hillary Clinton, who was at the time a candidate in the presidential primary race. Citizens United intended to release the film to cable companies and their viewers via on-demand service. The film qualified as an electioneering communication, as it would be available within 30 days of Clinton’s election, and contained what would be considered express advocacy.

Thus, Citizens United would have been caught in illegal electioneering communication activity. Citizens United argued that the electioneering communications ban and accompanying financial disclosure requirements violated the free speech protections afforded by the First Amendment.

Federal Election Commission’s Defense

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) viewed the prohibitions as funding restrictions (not speech bans) that had significant precedent in the Supreme Court’s past First Amendment decisions, such as Buckley v. Valeo and the more recent Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC, which eased corporate restrictions but upheld the ban for instances of express advocacy. The FEC argued that these prohibitions:

  • Sought to limit the corruptive influence of large amounts of money in the political process;
  • Upheld the notion that the integrity of the electoral process was worth some restrictive measures; and
  • Sought to protect corporate shareholders whose opinions might not match those of the communications.

The Issue: Was Political Spending a Form of Speech Protected by the First Amendment?

In reviewing Citizens’ petition, the Supreme Court decided that rather than focus on this film or, in the future, other specific instances on a case-by-case basis, it must consider the broader issue of political speech as it relates to the First Amendment, which provides that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.”

“The government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether.”

The Ruling

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the prohibition on corporate spending for independent expenditures and electioneering communications was unconstitutional. Arguing that laws restricting political speech must be subject to strict scrutiny, the Court ruled against the FEC and reversed the ban on corporate spending. However, the ruling upheld the existing disclaimer and disclosure requirements.

The majority opinion, delivered by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas, considered corporate bans to be speech suppression, and noted, “The government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether.”

Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotamayor dissented, noting that the Court was disregarding precedent and “threatened to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation.” The dissenting opinion also spoke to the likelihood of diminishing the voice of the individual against vast corporate political investment and participation.

Summary

  • Prior to Citizens United, campaign finance legislation and case law banned corporate spending on independent expenditures and electioneering communications.
  • Citizens United argued that these bans violated the First Amendment’s right to free speech.
  • In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court extended First Amendment rights to corporations, such that corporations can now use treasury funds to make independent expenditures and to pay for electioneering communications in connection with federal elections.
  • Corporations must still adhere to disclaimer and disclosure requirements when making those communications.

Editor’s Note: Meredith Trimble served as a Public Information Specialist at the United States Federal Election Commission from 2003 to 2005.

Works Cited[+ Expand]

Supreme Court of the United States. “Opinion of the Court. No. 08-205. Citizens United, Appellant, v. Federal Election Commission. On appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.” January 21, 2010. As accessed from the Web site of the United States Federal Election Commission, http://www.fec.gov/law/litigation/cu_sc08_opinion.pdf.

The United States Government Publishing Office. “Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. §100.16 Independent expenditure (52 U.S.C. 30101(17)). http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=a8f74e22426c2a67f75a4884e2b2348f&mc=true&node=se11.1.100_116&rgn=div8.

The United States Government Publishing Office. “Electronic Code of Federal Regulations. §100.29 Electioneering communication (52 U.S.C. 30104(f)(3)). http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=a8f74e22426c2a67f75a4884e2b2348f&mc=true&node=se11.1.100_129&rgn=div8.

The United States Federal Election Commission. “Federal Campaign Finance Laws.” Accessed October 13, 2015. http://www.fec.gov/law/feca/feca.shtml#statutes.

The United States Federal Election Commission. “Major BCRA Resources.” Accessed October 13, 2015. http://www.fec.gov/pages/bcra/major_resources_bcra.shtml.

The United States Federal Election Commission. “Litigation. Austin v. Michigan State Chamber of Commerce.” Accessed October 13, 2015. http://www.fec.gov/law/litigation_CCA_A.shtml#austin.

The United States Federal Election Commission. “Litigation. McConnell v. FEC.” Accessed October 13, 2015. http://www.fec.gov/law/litigation_CCA_M.shtml#mcconnell.

The United States District Court for the District of Columbia. “Citizens United, Plaintiff v. Federal Election Commission, Defendant. Defendant Federal Election Commission’s Motion to Dismiss Counts 3 and 4of the Amended Complaint.” As accessed from the Web site of the United States Federal Election Commission, http://www.fec.gov/law/litigation/cu_fec_mot_dismiss.pdf.

The United States Federal Election Commission. “Contributions Brochure.” February 2014, updated February 2015. http://www.fec.gov/pages/brochures/contrib.shtml#Corporations_Labor_Banks.

The United States Federal Election Commission. “Litigation. Buckley v. Valeo.” Accessed October 13, 2015. http://www.fec.gov/law/litigation_CCA_B.shtml.

The United States Federal Election Commission. “Litigation. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc. v. FEC.” Accessed October 13, 2015. http://www.fec.gov/law/litigation_CCA_W.shtml.

The United States Federal Election Commission. “FEC Record.” February 2010. Pages 1-3, http://www.fec.gov/pdf/record/2010/feb10.pdf.

FindLaw. “First Amendment – The United States Constitution.” Accessed October 13, 2015. http://constitution.findlaw.com/amendment1.html.

Cornell University Law School Legal Information Institute. “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Opinion of the Court.” January 21, 2010. https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/08-205.ZO.html

Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.” Accessed October 13, 2015. http://www.britannica.com/event/Citizens-United-v-Federal-Election-Commission.

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