Citizens united V. Fec (2010)

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Noah Alves

Pd. 4; AP Government

Mr. Pereira


Case Study

Citizens v. FEC


BACKGROUND: 2010 Supreme Court case where Citizens United, a non-profit organization, sought to produce a 90-minute film called "Hillary: The Move" through video-on-demand. Potentially violating the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) which criminalizes express advocacy of a candidate within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election, as it expressed opinions about Clinton and her credibility as potential president. Citizens United sought an injunction in the district court, lost the case and then appealed straight to the Supreme Court. The main arguments of the case revolved around the distortion and corruption of Clinton’s image and reputation and protecting the interest of the shareholders.

ISSUE: Did the Supreme Court's decision in McConnell resolve all constitutional as-applied challenges to the BCRA when it upheld the disclosure requirements of the statute as constitutional? Do the BCRA's disclosure requirements impose an unconstitutional burden when applied to electioneering requirements because they are protected "political speech" and not subject to regulation as "campaign speech"? If a communication lacks a clear plea to vote for or against a particular candidate, is it subject to regulation under the BCRA? Should a feature length documentary about a candidate for political office be treated like the advertisements at issue in McConnell and therefore be subject to regulation under the BCRA?

DECISION: The Court ruled, 5-4, that the First Amendment prohibits limits on corporate funding of independent broadcasts in candidate elections. The justices said that the government's rationale for the limits on corporate spending—to prevent corruption—was not persuasive enough to restrict political speech. A desire to prevent corruption can justify limits on donations to candidates, but not on independent expenditures (spending that is not coordinated with a candidate's campaign) to support or oppose candidates for elected office. Moreover, the Court said, corporations have free speech rights and their political speech cannot be restricted any more than that of individuals.

DISSENTING OPINION: The dissenters felt that the government should be allowed to ban corporate money because it could overwhelm the debate and drown out non-corporate voices. They noted that Congress had imposed special rules on corporate campaign spending for more than 100 years. The First Amendment was established to protect the people, not corporations.

SIGNIFICANCE: The impact of the Court’s narrow 5-4 ruling revolved primarily around the First Amendment, as the Court decided that the amendment prohibits the government from restricting political independent expenditures by corporations, associations, or labor unions. The Supreme Court held that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited, because doing so would violate the First Amendment. In Citizens United v. FEC, the Supreme Court asserted that corporations are people and removed reasonable campaign contribution limits, allowing a small group of wealthy donors and special interests to use dark money to influence elections. The court's ruling effectively freed corporations and unions to spend money both on "electioneering communications" and to directly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates (although not to contribute directly to candidates or political parties).

COMPANION CASE: 1976 Supreme Court case where Congress attempted to ferret out corruption in political campaigns by restricting financial contributions to candidates in the wake of the Watergate scandal; the law set limits on the amount of money an individual could contribute to a single campaign and required reporting of contributions above a certain threshold amount. The FEC was developed and established to enforce this. The opinion of the majority was that setting such limits was a violation of free speech. The ruling in this decision inspired a string of later cases on campaign spending, such as Citizens United v. FEC. This is similar to Citizens v. FEC in that both cases revolved around the issue of the First Amendment and its protection of free speech, which is ensured under the Constitution, and also what the boundaries were regarding the FEC and its regulations of money amounts and image distortion. On the other hand, Citizens v. FEC focused more on how the government couldn’t overstep on its powers regarding the First Amendment, and protected free speech and money being used to influence elections as violating these would be unconstitutional; this differs with Buckey v. Valeo in that it argued that limits could indeed be placed only as a prevention measure for corruption and and speech could therefore be restricted, however, this preceded Citizens v. FEC and proved to be an important talking point.

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