Citizens United v. FEC

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010), was a landmark decision of the Supreme Court of the United States concerning the relationship between campaign finance and free speech. It was argued in 2009 and decided in 2010. The court held that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for political campaigns by corporations, including nonprofit corporations, labor unions, and other associations.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
Argued March 24, 2009
Reargued September 9, 2009
Decided January 21, 2010
Full case nameCitizens United, Appellant v. Federal Election Commission
Docket no.08-205
Citations558 U.S. 310 (more)
130 S. Ct. 876; 175 L. Ed. 2d 753; 2010 U.S. LEXIS 766
ArgumentOral argument
Opinion announcementOpinion announcement
Case history
PriorMotion for preliminary injunction denied, 530 F. Supp. 2d 274 (D.D.C. 2008);[1] probable jurisdiction noted, 555 U.S. 1028 (2008).
The provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act restricting unions, corporations, and profitable organizations from independent political spending and prohibiting the broadcasting of political media funded by them within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary election violate the First Amendment's protections of freedom of speech. United States District Court for the District of Columbia reversed.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
John P. Stevens · Antonin Scalia
Anthony Kennedy · Clarence Thomas
Ruth Bader Ginsburg · Stephen Breyer
Samuel Alito · Sonia Sotomayor
Case opinions
MajorityKennedy, joined by Roberts, Scalia, Alito; Thomas (all but Part IV); Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor (Part IV)
ConcurrenceRoberts, joined by Alito
ConcurrenceScalia, joined by Alito; Thomas (in part)
Concur/dissentStevens, joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I, Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act
This case overturned a previous ruling or rulings

The case began after Citizens United, a conservative non-profit organization, sought to air and advertise a film critical of then Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton shortly before the 2008 Democratic primary elections. Advertising the film would have been a violation of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which prohibited any corporation, non-profit organization or labor union from making an "electioneering communication" within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of an election, or making any expenditure advocating the election or defeat of a candidate at any time. Citizens United challenged the constitutionality of this law, and its case reached the Supreme Court.

In a majority opinion joined by four other justices, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy held that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act's prohibition of all independent expenditures by corporations and unions violated the First Amendment's protection of free speech. The court overturned Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990), which had allowed different restrictions on speech-related spending based on corporate identity, as well as a portion of McConnell v. FEC (2003) that had restricted corporate spending on electioneering communications. The ruling effectively freed labor unions, trust funds, and corporations to spend money on electioneering communications and to directly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates. In his dissenting opinion, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens declared that the court's ruling represented "a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government."[2]

The decision remains highly controversial, generating much public discussion and receiving strong support and opposition from various groups. Senator Mitch McConnell commended the decision, arguing that it represented "an important step in the direction of restoring the First Amendment rights".[3] By contrast, President Barack Obama stated that the decision "gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington".[4] The ruling represented a turning point on campaign finance, allowing unlimited election spending by corporations and labor unions and fueling the rise of Super PACs. These PACs are "super" in that they produce millions of dollars for a party or an individual candidate through undisclosed means. Later rulings by the Roberts Court, including McCutcheon v. FEC (2014), would strike down other campaign finance restrictions. While the long-term legacy of this case remains to be seen, scholars and political scientists have concluded that the Citizens United decision overwhelmingly worked in favor for the electoral success of Republican candidates.[5][6]