In the heat of the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, a conservative political group called Citizens United produced a “documentary” that vilified democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. But when the group tried to run the piece on TV within a month of the primary election, the Federal Election Commission prohibited it from doing so, ruling it a form of corporate “express advocacy” banned by current campaign law on corporate spending.The group sued and the case eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission.

The key issue at play was whether political campaign spending should be considered  a form of speech or an overwhelming source of political corruption.  Arguing on behalf of the plaintiffs, lawyer Ted Olson told the Court:

“The most fundamental right that we can exercise in a democracy under the First Amendment is dialogue and communication about political candidates. We have wrapped up that freedom, smothered that freedom, with the most complicated set of regulations and bureaucratic controls.”

Apparently, Olson was quite convincing. In a bitterly divided 5-4 decision, the majority ruled that political spending (on campaigns) should indeed be considered a form of  speech protected under the First Amendment, and that the government has no business regulating political speech.

What that boils down to: money is speech and corporations have the same First Amendment protections as people.

The decision reversed previous campaign law and allowed corporations, unions, and other organizations to contribute unlimited amounts of money to groups called “independent expenditure” organizations that work on behalf of candidates but do not directly coordinate with them.

And so the Super PAC was born.

Strong opposition
Over the last two years, a growing number of political leaders and organizations have consistently spoken out against the Citizens United ruling, arguing that it allows unlimited corporate money to flood the political process and have a corrupting impact on democracy.  Among the strongest concerns is that candidates, if elected, will be beholden to the individuals and groups that help put them in power.

Legislation has even been introduced in the Senate to enact a Constitutional amendment that would overturn the decision.

In the Court’s dissenting opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote:

“At bottom, the Court’s Opinion is thus a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government since the founding and have fought against the distinctive potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt.”

In his 2010 State of the Union address, President Obama staunchly condemned the Supreme Court’s decision. With the nine justices sitting close by in the audience, Obama said:

“Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests — including foreign companies — to spend without limit in our elections. Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, and 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.”

The Court’s decision has already profoundly affected this year’s presidential race, as hundreds of Super PACs supporting the Republican candidates have sprung up and collected unprecedented, and formerly prohibited, levels of financial contributions from wealthy private interests. It’s predicted that more private money will pour into this election than ever before.

Interestingly, Obama’s reelection campaign recently announced that it was asking its supporters to form their own Super PAC and start raising money. The campaign argues that if the Republican candidates are all participating, it needs to as well.

Citizens United: When Money Became Speech 20 May,2015Matthew Green


Matthew Green

Matthew Green produces and edits The Lowdown, KQED’s multimedia news education blog, an online resource for educators and the general public. He previously taught journalism at Fremont High School in East Oakland, and has written for numerous local publications, including the Oakland Tribune and San Francisco Chronicle. Email:; Twitter: @MGreenKQED

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