Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

558 U.S. 310 (2010)

Quick Summary

Citizens United (plaintiff), challenged § 441b of BCRA, which restricted corporate funding for political speech, as unconstitutional. The Federal Election Commission (defendant) defended the provision’s constitutionality. The dispute centered around whether these restrictions violated Citizens United’s First Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court concluded that § 441b’s prohibition on corporate independent expenditures was unconstitutional, reaffirming the protection of political speech under the First Amendment, but upheld disclosure requirements for political advertisements.

Facts of the Case

Citizens United (plaintiff), a nonprofit corporation, produced a documentary titled ‘Hillary: The Movie’, which was critical of then-Senator Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primary elections.

The organization intended to distribute the film through video-on-demand and promote it with television ads, but was concerned about violating § 441b of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), which prohibits corporations from using their general treasury funds for ‘electioneering communications’ or speech that expressly advocates for the election or defeat of a candidate close to primary or general elections.

Seeking to avoid potential criminal sanctions, Citizens United challenged the constitutionality of § 441b in federal district court against the Federal Election Commission (FEC) (defendant), arguing that it infringed upon their freedom of speech as protected by the First Amendment. The district court upheld the provision, leading Citizens United to appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. Citizens United produced ‘Hillary: The Movie’ and sought to distribute it during the election period.
  2. The organization filed a case in federal district court challenging the constitutionality of § 441b under BCRA.
  3. The district court ruled in favor of the FEC, prompting Citizens United to appeal to the Supreme Court.

I.R.A.C. Format

Issue

Whether § 441b of the BCRA, which prohibits corporations from funding ‘electioneering communications’, is unconstitutional as it applies to ‘Hillary: The Movie’ and whether it violates corporate free speech rights under the First Amendment.

Rule of Law

The First Amendment’s free speech clause is applicable to corporations, and laws that prevent corporations from engaging in political speech are subject to strict scrutiny, requiring the government to prove that such regulation furthers a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court reviewed previous rulings, including Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and McConnell v. Federal Election Comm’n, which had upheld restrictions on corporate political speech. The Court found that these restrictions were inconsistent with First Amendment protections that ensure free political discourse, which is necessary for democratic governance.

The Court determined that § 441b’s limitations on corporate independent expenditures were an unconstitutional suppression of free speech. It reasoned that allowing the government to ban political speech based on corporate identity or based on certain media would be a violation of the First Amendment. Furthermore, the Court found no compelling governmental interest justifying such limits on political speech.

The Court also considered the government’s arguments regarding corruption prevention, shareholder protection, and foreign influence but found them unpersuasive in justifying the suppression of political speech. Instead, the Court emphasized the importance of political speech and its protection under the First Amendment, regardless of whether an individual or a corporation is engaging in such speech.

Conclusion

The Supreme Court overruled Austin and parts of McConnell, striking down § 441b’s restrictions on corporate independent expenditures as unconstitutional. However, it upheld BCRA’s disclosure requirements as they apply to ‘Hillary: The Movie’ and related advertisements.

Key Takeaways

  1. The free speech clause of the First Amendment is applicable to corporations, and laws restricting corporate political speech are subject to strict scrutiny.
  2. Restrictions on corporate independent expenditures for political speech are unconstitutional.
  3. Disclosure requirements for political advertisements are constitutional and do not violate the First Amendment.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What are the constitutional limits on regulating corporate political contributions?

Constitutional limits on regulating corporate political contributions stem from the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, which includes political expression by corporations. Government restrictions must meet strict scrutiny, meaning they must further a compelling governmental interest and be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest without unnecessary abridgment of speech.

  • For example: A law that bans all political donations from corporations would likely fail this test, as it could be considered overly broad and not the least restrictive means of preventing corruption.

How do disclosure requirements for political advertising affect free speech?

Disclosure requirements for political advertising are generally considered to be permissible under the First Amendment as they promote transparency and provide the electorate with information to make informed decisions without preventing speech itself. They must, however, be crafted in a way that does not unnecessarily burden the ability to engage in political expression.

  • For example: A law requiring the disclosure of donors for political ads on television may be valid if it is designed to inform voters but would be questionable if so onerous that it deters almost all potential contributors.

Is there a difference between freedom of speech for individuals versus corporations?

The Supreme Court has recognized that corporations have First Amendment rights, but there is ongoing debate about whether these rights should be as expansive as those for natural persons. While both individuals and corporations can claim freedom of speech protections, the application in certain contexts, such as campaign finance, may differ based on potential concerns like prevention of corruption.

  • For example: Regulations requiring individual identification for personal campaign contributions might not necessarily apply in corporate contexts where transparency concerns involve shareholder interests.

References

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