Brief Fact Summary.
Citizens United argued that the federal law prohibiting corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for speech defined as “electioneering communication” or speech expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate is unconstitutional.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
The First Amendment protection extends to corporations by explicit holdings to the context of political speech.
In speaking of improper influence and opportunities for abuse in addition to quid pro quo arrangements, we recognized a concern not confined to bribery of public officials, but extending to the broader threat from politicians too compliant with the wishes of large contributors.View Full Point of Law
Federal law prohibits corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for speech defined as “electioneering communication” or speech expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate. Limits on electioneering communications were upheld ind McConnell. The holding of McConnell rested to a large extent on Austin, which held that political speech may be banned based on the speaker’s corporate identity. Here, Citizens United is a nonprofit corporation and has an annual budget of about $12 million. In 2008, Citizens United released a film entitled Hillary, a documentary about then-Senator Hillary Clinton. The film depicts Clinton by name and depicts interviews with political commentators and other persons. Citizens United wanted to make Hillary available through video-on-demand within 30 days of the 2008 primary elections but feared that it would be covered by the federal ban on corporate-funded independent expenditures.
Does the federal law prohibiting corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for speech defined as “electioneering communication” or speech expressly advocating the election or defeat of a candidate violate the Constitution?
Yes, Hillary is equivalent to express advocacy. The movie is a feature-length negative advertisement that urges viewers to vote against Senator Clinton for President. The law at issue is an outright ban, backed by criminal sanctions. The law makes it a felony for all corporations either to expressly advocate the election or defeat of candidates or to broadcast electioneering communications within 30 days of a primary election. Such prohibition is a classic example of censorship, which is prohibited under the Constitution.
Neither Citizens United’s nor any other corporations’ speech has been banned. All that the parties dispute is whether Citizens United had a right to use the funds in its general treasury to pay for broadcasts during the 30-day period. Unlike natural persons, corporations have limited liability for their owners and managers, separation of ownership and control and favorable treatment of the accumulation and distribution of assets that enhance their ability to attract capital and to deploy their resources in ways that maximize the return on their shareholders’ investments. Unlike voters, corporations may be foreign controlled.
The Framers did not like corporations, the dissent concludes, and thus it follows that corporations had no rights of free speech. The Framers‘ personal affection of disaffection for corporations is relevant only insofar as it can be though to be reflected in the understood meaning of the text – not as a freestanding substitute for that text as the dissent suggests.
Political speech is indispensable to decisionmaking in a democracy and this is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation rather than an individual, the Court said. This protection for speech is inconsistent with Austin’s anti-distortion rationale which sought to defend the anti-distortion rationale as a means to prevent corporations from obtaining an unfair advantage in the political marketplace. But Buckley rejected the premise that the Government has an interest in equalizing the relative ability of individuals and groups to influence the outcome of elections. The First Amendment’s protections do not depend on the speaker’s financial ability to engage in public discussion. Independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption. Citizens United has not made direct contributions to candidates, and it has not suggested that the Court should reconsider whether contribution limits should be subjected to rigorous First Amendment scrutiny. First Amendment does not allow the Government to restrict the media corporation’s political speech and the law at issue violates the Constitution.