Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)

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Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is the 2010 Supreme Court case that held that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from limiting independent expenditures on political campaigns by groups such as corporations or labor unions. (Read the opinion here; find oral arguments here).

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA, McCain–Feingold Act) prohibited corporations and unions from using their general funds to make independent expenditures for speech defined as “electioneering communication.” An electioneering communication is defined as “any broadcast, cable, or satellite communication” that “refers to a clearly identified candidate for Federal office” and is made with 60 days before a general election or 30 days before a primary election. In addition, BCRA required televised electioneering communications funded by anyone other than a candidate to include a disclaimer. Furthermore, any person who spends more than $10,000 on electioneering communications must file a disclosure statement with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). (Read LII’s Overview of BCRA here).

Previously, the Court in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990) upheld a state prohibition of an independent corporate expenditure in support of a candidate for state office. The Court in McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003) held that the “electioneering communication” prohibition in BCRA was facially constitutional “insofar as it restricted speech that was the functional equivalent of express advocacy.”

Citizens United, a nonprofit corporation, desired to air and advertise Hillary: The Movie, a film critical of then-Senator Hillary Clinton, ahead of the 2008 Democratic primary elections. In December 2007, Citizens United sought declaratory and injunctive relief against the FEC because Citizens United feared that, under Austin and McConnell, BCRA would prevent the airing and advertising of Hillary. The District Court denied Citizens United’s motion for a preliminary injunction.

The Court began its opinion, delivered by Justice Kennedy and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Alito, Thomas, and Breyer, by considering whether BRCA is applicable in this case. Citizens United contended that the film does not qualify as an “electioneering communication,” and thus BRCA does not apply. The Court rejected Citizens United’s argument by finding that Hillary is an appeal to vote against Clinton and qualifies as “the functional equivalent of express advocacy.” Therefore, under the test in McConnell, BCRA prohibits Citizens United from airing or advertising the film, Hillary.

After deciding that BCRA applies, the Court considered whether the provisions in BCRA that prohibits corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for “electioneering communication” is facially constitutional under the free speech clause of the First Amendment. (Compare: unconstitutional).

The free speech clause of the First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” The Constitution requires that laws that burden political speech are subject to strict scrutiny, which requires the Government to prove that the restriction “furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest” (see Federal Election Comm’n v. Wisconsin Right to Life, Inc.).

After holding that BCRA’s prohibition on corporate independent expenditure burdens political speech, the Court turned to whether the prohibition “furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.” The Court first looked at Buckley v. Valeo (1976) and First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978). These two cases recognized only “the prevention of [quid pro quo] corruption and the appearance of corruption” as a compelling governmental interest. In addition, these two cases prohibited the Government from restricting political speech based on the speaker’s corporate identity.

In Austin, however, the Court found that an anti-distortion interest as another compelling governmental interest in limiting political speech. It held that the Government had a compelling interest in preventing the “distortion effects of immense aggregations of wealth that are accumulated with the help of the corporate form and that have little or no correlation to the public’s support for the corporation’s political ideas.” In addition, Austin permitted restrictions based on the speaker’s corporate identity.

To address the conflicting lines of precedent, the Court turned to the purpose of political speech. The Court held that political speech is “indispensable to decision-making in a democracy, and this is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation rather than an individual.” In addition, the Court relied on the reasoning in Buckley, which rejected the premise that the Government has an interest in equalizing relative ability of individuals and groups to influence the outcome of elections. The Court concluded that Austin’s anti-distortion rationale interfered with the “open marketplace” of ideas protected by the First Amendment. The Court overturned Austin and part of McConnell which held that prohibition on corporate independent expenditure is constitutional.

The Court then addressed the constitutionality of the disclaimer and disclosure provisions in BRCA. Although the disclaimer and disclosure provisions may burden the ability to speak, the Court found that they do not impose a ceiling on campaign-related activities and do not prevent anyone from speaking.

Justice Stevens, joined by Justices Ginsberg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, dissented by arguing that the Court’s ruling “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions.” Justice Stevens contends that the majority should not limit corruption as strictly quid pro quo exchanges.

The outcome of this case was highly controversial. President Obama, during the 2010 State of the Union Address, stated that the holding in Citizens United would “open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections” while the American Civil Liberties Union has supported the Court’s ruling in this case. Some scholars have attributed the creation of “Super PACS” to this ruling.

See also First Amendment: Political Speech and Campaign Finance.

Related cases:

  • Buckley v. Valeo (1976)
  • First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti (1978)
  • Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990)
  • McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003)
  • Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life (2007)
  • McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (2014)

[Last updated in July of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]