Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

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Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
Court U.S. Supreme Court
Citation 558 U.S. 310
130 S. Ct. 876
175 L. Ed. 2d
Date decided January 21, 2010
Appealed from U.S.D.C., District of Columbia
Overturned Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce
Partially overturned McConnell v. Federal Election Commission
Case Opinions
majority written by Anthony M. Kennedy
joined by John G. Roberts, Antonin G. Scalia, Samuel A. Alito, Clarence Thomas
concurrence written by John G. Roberts
joined by Samuel A. Alito
concurrence written by Antonin G. Scalia
joined by Samuel A. Alito
concur/dissent written by John Paul Stevens
joined by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor
concur/dissent written by Clarence Thomas

Facts:

Citizens United created a film called Hillary: The Movie, which discussed Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's competence as president. The Federal Election Commission attempted to apply the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) to the film. Citizens United sought an injunction.

The BCRA prevents corporations from funding "electioneering communications" and requires the disclosure of donors to such communication and a disclaimer when the communication is not authorized by the candidate.


Arguments:

Citizens United argued:

  1. The BCRA violates the First Amendment when applied to the movie and its related advertisements
  2. The BCRA is also unconstitutional as applied to the current circumstances.

Procedural History:

The United States District Court denied the injunction, findng that the BCRA was not unconstitutional because the Supreme Court in McConnell v. FEC had already reached that determination. The District Court also held that the movie was the functional equivalent of express advocacy, as it attempted to inform voters that Senator Clinton was unfit for office, and thus the BCRA was not unconstitutionally applied. Lastly, it held that the BCRA was not unconstitutional as applied to the the movie or its advertisements. The court reasoned that the McConnell decision recognized that disclosure of donors "might be unconstitutional if it imposed an unconstitutional burden on the freedom to associate in support of a particular cause," but those circumstances did not exist in Citizen United's claim.


Issues:

  1. 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?
  2. 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"?
  3. If a communication lacks a clear plea to vote for or against a particular candidate, is it subject to regulation under the BCRA?
  4. 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?

Holding:

  1. No, McConnell is partially overruled.
  2. No
  3. Yes
  4. Yes

The First Amendment protects the right to free speech, despite the speaker's corporate identity.

Rationale:

The majority held that under the First Amendment corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justices Antonin G. Scalia, Samuel A. Alito, and Clarence Thomas. Justice John Paul Stevens dissented, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor. The majority maintained that political speech is indispensable to a democracy, which is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation. The majority also held that the BCRA's disclosure requirements as applied to The Movie were constitutional, reasoning that disclosure is justified by a "governmental interest" in providing the "electorate with information" about election-related spending resources. The Court also upheld the disclosure requirements for political advertising sponsors and it upheld the ban on direct contributions to candidates from corporations and unions.