Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)

Summary

On January 21, 2010, the Supreme Court issued what is certain to become a landmark ruling in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-4 ruling, the Court struck down federal limits on what organizations (including non-profit organizations, unions, and for-profit corporations) may say during elections. A ban on direct contributions to candidates was left in place. The majority reasoned that the speech limits violated the First Amendment and chilled political expression. With this ruling, the Court seemed to reverse the trend of the last century, which brought greater limits to corporate political speech and activity.

Resources

Comprehension and Critical Thinking Questions

1. What were the facts of the case in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010)?

2. How did the Court rule?

3. What was the Court’s reasoning for its decision?

4. In his dissent, Justice Stevens asserted, “In the context of election to public office, the distinction between corporate and human speakers is significant. Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters….Like all other natural persons, every shareholder of every corporation remains entirely free…to do however much electioneering she pleases outside of the corporate form.” How would you respond to this statement?

4. Do you agree with the Court’s ruling? What is your constitutional reasoning?

Extension

President Obama was critical of the Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in his State of the Union Address.

  • How would you respond to the President’s statement?
  • What resources would you use to support your response?

The President said:

“Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections. Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people, and that’s why I’m urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong.”