Citizens United refers to the Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission that was decided in January 2010, in which corporations, trade associations, unions, and non-profit groups were given the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money on independent expenditures, also known as advertisements, advocating for the election or defeat of political candidates during federal elections. In a 5-4 ruling, the majority of justices argued that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individuals, and therefore it is unconstitutional to restrict their speech in any way at any time, including how much money they want to spend to influence federal elections.
Citizens United also refers to the name of the conservative non-profit that sued the Federal Election Commission in this historic and controversial Supreme Court case. In 2008, Citizens United took the FEC to court because it was barred from advertising its documentary Hillary: The Movie criticizing then-Senator Hillary Clinton because it was deemed “electioneering communications." It argued that the court should overrule the 1990 case Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce that limited corporate spending in candidate elections.
What’s the significance?
While corruption in political campaigns is nothing new, this case undid several laws that curbed this issue. For example, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA), also known as the McCain-Feingold Act, limited the role that corporations could play in federal elections by restricting them from spending money on “electioneering communications," or advertisements advocating for or against candidates within 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election. This law was held in place thanks to a previous case in 1990 known as Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which ruled that corporate wealth could disproportionately influence the outcome of elections given how much money corporations are capable of spending on advertisements.
While independent groups still cannot give direct campaign contributions to candidates, many argue that the influence unleashed by Citizens United has made elections more corrupt than ever before. They point out that campaign expenditures on behalf of candidates, no matter where they go, can cause the candidates to be more favorable toward a particular corporation, labor union, or organization. Many also argue that because the ruling identifies spending money as free speech, corporations and other organizations will drown out other voices, putting the average citizen at a disadvantage.
The 2012 Republican primaries have showcased the influence of independent political action committees, known as "Super PACs." These groups can register with the FEC and can accept unlimited amounts of money from corporations, labor unions, individuals, and non-profits in order to influence elections. They must disclose their donors and spend their money independently from the candidate's own campaign. However, many critics point out the fact that non-profits do not have to disclose their donors, so those who wish to remain anonymous can still influence elections. This undisclosed spending is also referred to as "dark money" and, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, only half of non-party outside spending was reported to the public in 2010. Currently, the Super PACs that have raised the most money are Republican ones.
Who’s talking about it?
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Tom Ferguson talks about how money in politics makes congress inactive...Joe Costello notes that the Citizens United ruling was to be expected after a history of our government not reigning in corporate power...Paul Blumenthal explains how Citizens United gave birth to Super PACs...Two years after the ruling, Steven Rosenfeld reports on the growing movement to overturn Citizens United...Geoffrey Stone explains what led to the Citizens United ruling and the arguments on both sides...Editors at the New York Times share their views on how corporate money will reshape politics...Richard Hasen argues that Citizens United will lead to more corruption and less democracy...NPR tracks the history of campaign finance law...Peter Rothberg shares Annie Leonard's video telling the story of Citizens United and offers challenges to the law already underway...E.J. Dionne writes that Citizens United needs to be overturned because it has created a "democracy" for the rich.