A corporation engaged in electioneering communication in violation of a federal law.
Corporate electioneering communication is speech that is protected by the First Amendment, and the First Amendment prohibits speech restrictions based on the speaker’s identity as a corporation.
In 2008, Citizens United, a nonprofit corporation, released a documentary about Hillary Clinton, who was a candidate in the Democratic primary election of that year. 2 U.S.C. § 441b, a federal law, made it a felony for corporations to expressly advocate the election or defeat of candidates, or to broadcast electioneering communications within 30 days of a primary election, and 60 days of a general election.
Did § 441b, by limiting corporate electioneering communication, violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?
Yes,§ 441b violated the First Amendment.
Justice Stevens argues that the First Amendment does not prohibit speech regulations based on the speaker’s identity as a corporation, and that corporations are different from people in significant ways, as supported by historical limitations on corporate campaign spending. Justice Stevens also argues that there is no significant justification for overruling Austin.
Justice Stevens also rejects several of the Court’s premises upon which it based its decision on the merits. First, he argues that the First Amendment does not prohibit regulatory distinctions based on speaker identity, and corporate identity in particular.
He also argues that it is untrue the Austin and McConnell are outliers in First Amendment tradition, citing the Constitutional Framers’ willingness to subject corporations to regulations, federal laws and court rulings allowing regulations of corporate political speech, and Bellotti, which, Justice Stevens argues, did not support the Court’s ruling.
Finally, Justice Stevens asserts that there are important interests at stake in regulating corporate political speech, including anticorruption, antidistortion, and shareholder protection.
Justice Roberts emphasized stare decisis, and listed several reasons why the interests in overruling Austin outweighed the interests in upholding it: Austin was a departure from earlier cases, member of the Court had consistently disputed the validity of Austin’s rationale, and adhering to Austin would risk the subversion of the principled and intelligible development of the Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence.
Justice Scalia disagreed with Justice Steven’s dissenting argument that the original understanding of the First Amendment did not support the Court’s decision.
§ 441b burdened political speech, so it was subject to the strict scrutiny test of constitutionality. The strict scrutiny test requires restrictions to further a compelling interest, and be narrowly tailored to achieve that interest.
The Court identified two conflicting lines of precedent. Before it decided Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Court prohibited restrictions on political speech based on on the identity of the speaker as a corporation. Post-Austin, the Court allowed such restrictions.
In Austin, the Court identified an antidistortion interest in regulating corporate political speech. Under this rational, regulating corporate political speech was valid as a means of preventing corporations from gaining an unfair advantage in politics through their vast resources. But here, the Court held that it rejected the antidistortion rationale in Buckley v. Valeo, and that the government does not have to censor corporate electioneering communication, because members of the public are capable of thinking for themselves. The Court also rejected the interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption, citing 26 states that did not restrict independent corporate expenditures, and the interest in protecting corporate shareholders from being compelled to finance political speech they disagree with.
The Court overruled Austin, and invalidated § 441b.