Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 130 S.Ct. 876 (Jan. 21, 2010), is a landmark decision from the United States Supreme Court. It overturns significant parts of the McCain-Feingold Act restricting campaign finance contributions, by holding that it violates the First Amendment. This decision ends the monopoly on political influence enjoyed by the liberal media, by granting to other corporations the same unlimited political spending rights that the media already have—which is why liberals deplore this ruling.
The major impact of the decision is simply this: corporations may now spend unlimited amounts in favor or against a candidate, as long as the expenditure is independent of the campaign and not a donation to the campaign. Wal-Mart could spend $100 million directly to defeat a pro-union candidate. Unions are also allowed to spend unlimited amounts.
This was the decision singled out for criticism by President Barack Obama in an unprecedented manner during his State of the Union address in January 2010, which created an awkward moment as the U.S. Supreme Court Justices sat silently, as is tradition, despite the chastising. Justice Samuel Alito was reportedly observed mouthing disagreement with Obama's criticism.
In 2008, Citizens United produced a television documentary attacking Hillary Clinton, then a candidate for President. It wanted to pay a video on demand service to make the documentary available during the primary election season; however, this was considered illegal under the McCain-Feingold campaign finance act. The group sued, arguing both that McCain-Feingold does not apply to video-on-demand services and that McCain-Feingold is unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court agreed to an unusually early fall sitting so it could decide the case before the 2010 primary elections, and after much anticipation the Court released its 5-4 decision on January 21, 2010.
During oral argument, book banning became a contentious issue. Justice Alito asked the question regarding the government's ability to ban books to which the response from Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm L. Stewart was 'yes'. He said "a corporation could be barred from using its general treasury funds to publish the book and could be required to use -- to raise funds to publish the book using its PAC" if "it has one name, one use of the candidate's name." After a break and rebriefing, the case was re-argued by Solicitor General Elena Kagan. Kagan retracted the government's claim that it can ban books or pamphlets, but in an unconvincing way.
|“||When government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought.||”|
Justice Kennedy concluded his opinion the Court with the following:
|“||When word concerning the plot of the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington reached the circles of Government, some officials sought, by persuasion, to discourage its distribution. See Smoodin, "Compulsory" Viewing for Every Citizen: Mr. Smith and the Rhetoric of Reception, 35 Cinema Journal 3, 19, and n. 52 (Winter 1996) (citing Mr. Smith Riles Washington, Time, Oct. 30, 1939, p. 49); Nugent, Capra's Capitol Offense, N. Y. Times, Oct. 29, 1939, p. X5. Under Austin, though, officials could have done more than discourage its distribution -- they could have banned the film. After all, it, like Hillary, was speech funded by a corporation that was critical of Members of Congress. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington may be fiction and caricature; but fiction and caricature can be a powerful force. ...||”|
|“||Some members of the public might consider Hillary to be insightful and instructive; some might find it to be neither high art nor a fair discussion on how to set the Nation's course; still others simply might suspend judgment on these points but decide to think more about issues and candidates. Those choices and assessments, however, are not for the Government to make. "The First Amendment underwrites the freedom to experiment and to create in the realm of thought and speech. Citizens must be free to use new forms, and new forums, for the expression of ideas. The civic discourse belongs to the people, and the Government may not prescribe the means used to conduct it." McConnell, supra, at 341, 124 S. Ct. 619, 157 L. Ed. 2d 491 (opinion of KENNEDY, J.).||”|
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito concurred fully. Justice Clarence Thomas concurred with all but Part IV of the judgment; Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor joined the judgment on Part IV only. Chief Justice Roberts filed a concurring opinion which Justice Scalia joined; Justice Scalia filed his own concurring opinion which Justice Alito joined and Justice Thomas joined in part; explaining (even quoting Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary) that corporations do have First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of the press. Justice Stevens concurred in part and dissented in part, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Breyer. Justice Thomas also concurred in part and dissented in part and filed his own opinion, arguing that the Court's opinion does not go far enough - the disclosure requirements are unconstitutional as well, because they allow speakers to be intimidated. Thomas quoted numerous examples, including liberal harassment of supporters of Proposition 8.
Critics of this ruling argue that corporations are wrongfully being treated as people and that decision is politically motivated because it was rushed to be made before the 2010 primaries. Some of these critics may be ignoring the fact that the decision was made to protect First Amendment rights - the rights of the people who are part of corporations. Critics may also wish to specifically deny First Amendment rights to corporations as a way of protecting liberal interests (e.g. big government, regulation, environmentalism), which are often in opposition to the political interests of corporations (e.g. Laissez-faire capitalism).
Corporate LobbiesFour years ago, the United States Supreme Court suggested that corporate spending to influence federal elections would not “give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,” the majority wrote in the Citizens United decision. According to recent analysis by the Sunlight Foundation 
"Between 2007 and 2012, 200 of America’s most politically active corporations spent a combined $5.8 billion (with a B) on federal lobbying and campaign contributions. What they gave pales compared to what those same corporations got: $4.4 trillion (with a T) in federal business and support. Putting that in context, the $4.4 trillion total represents two-thirds of the $6.5 trillion that individual taxpayers paid into the federal treasury. Said otherwise, by spending: a paltry $6 billion to bribe the US government, or just a little more than what GM will spend on stock buybacks alone, US corporations are getting the direct benefit of two-thirds of US taxpayers' labor! And here is the visual representation of this stunning finding: for every dollar spent on influencing politics, the nation’s most politically active corporations received $760 from the government. Which translates into an Internal Rate Of Return of, hold on to your hats folks, 75,900%!"
- List of briefs, from Scotusblog.com
- Transcript of oral argument
- Full text of all opinions (PDF, 183 pages)
- Archived text
- Live from D.C., It’s Ted Cruz with a Good Point
- In court, government drops claim it can regulate books
- Initial arguments, page 29
- The feds have acknowledged they can’t ban books — and it only took 43 years
- Citizens United – It’s All About the Book Banning
- Kairys, David. "Money Isn't Speech and Corporations Aren't People." January 22, 2010. Slate. http://www.slate.com/id/2242210/
- Allison, Bill and Harkins, Sarah, Fixed Fortunes: Biggest corporate political interests spend billions, get trillions, Published November 17, 2014. Accessed March 20, 2015.
- Durden, Tyler, "The Best "Democracy" Money Can Buy: For Every Dollar Spent Influencing US Politics, Corporations Get $760 Back", Zero Hedge, (March 16, 2015). Accessed March 20, 2015.