Citizens United v. FEC

What happened?

The McCain-Feingold Act (2002), in part, prohibited corporations and unions from using their general treasuries to fund campaign ads (mentioning a candidate) from 30 days prior to a primary and 60 days prior to a general election.  A conservative non-profit Citizens United filed a complaint with the FEC claiming that ads for Michael Moore’s movie Fahrenheit 9/11 aired in the prohibited window for ads.  The FEC rejected the claim so Citizens decided to make its own movie called Hillary: The Movie which was critical of then-Senator Clinton.  Citizens ran ads for the movie during the prohibited election window and was found to have violated the McCain-Feingold provision by the FEC.  Citizens appealed to the Supreme Court.

What did the Court say?

In a 5-4 decision the Court held that the challenged provision of McCain-Feingold violated the 1st Amendment by prohibiting independent expenditures by corporations and unions.  Citizens United wins.  Justice Kennedy wrote that the 1st Amendment does not distinguish between media and corporations, thus if the FEC wins then Congress could also regulate/suppress political speech in books, newspapers, and magazines.  Corporations and unions may now directly spend money “electioneering” and may explicitly advocate for the election or defeat of a political candidate.  The 1st Amendment protects the speech of individuals AND associations of individuals (e.g. corporations).  The Court noted that the ruling does not change requirements about disclosure, etc, contained in McCain-Feingold.

Why does it matter?

The Citizens United case changed the manner in which elections can be funded; now corporations and unions can use money from the general treasuries to advocate for a political candidate.  The ruling also led to the proliferation of “Super PACs”, an entity designed following Citizens that runs independently of campaigns but spends money advocating for a candidate or campaign.  Donations can be from individuals, corporations, and unions and are unlimited financially (unlike donations directly to candidates).

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