Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was a landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that extended free speech rights to corporations by saying that the government cannot restrict funding of communications by any type of corporation (private or nonprofit or for-profit) or association. In doing so it struck down previous precedent prohibiting corporations or associations from funding election-related communications that mentioned a candidate within a certain time period surrounding a primary or general election. Corporate sponsorship of advertisements must still be revealed however.
Citizens United sought to air a documentary critical of candidate Hillary Clinton prior to the 2008 presidential election but was prevented by the Federal Election Campaign Act and portions of the McCain-Feingold law which limits “electioneering” and corporate contributions to campaigns. The organization had previously protested to the F.E.C. that filmmaker Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, about George W. Bush, had aired in violation of the law. The FEC ruled that complaint invalid because Moore was a documentary filmmaker and not a corporation seeking to unfairly influence a campaign. At this point, Citizens United sought to become a recognized documentary filmmaker to get around the restriction. Central to the organization’s efforts was the ability to run “advertisements” for its documentaries, which would coincide with the blackout period surrounding elections.
In U.S. District Court for Washington D.C. it was found that the Citizens United film was nothing more than thinly disguised electioneering. The court upheld the previous precedent McConnell v. FEC which reaffirmed much of McCain-Feingold.
The U.S. Supreme Court accepted the appeal of the case in 2009 and expected to vote simply on the question of the anti-Hillary Clinton film that Citizens United had produced. Instead the court took an expansive review of previous precedent and overruled portions of previous decisions, voting that associations, such as unions, were made of individuals, and therefore laws could not be made abridging the association’s free speech rights regarding elections. The decision nullified previous restrictions on electioneering by organizations, particularly Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
Dissenting justices wrote in their opinions that the decision was essentially a slippery slope, opening the door to unlimited corporate campaign spending that would buy elections.