What is Citizens United?

“Citizens United” is shorthand for a landmark 2010 Supreme Court case – Citizens United v. FEC – that changed the face of campaign finance and money in politics in the United States.

Citizens United overturned certain long-standing restrictions on political fundraising and spending – transforming the entire political landscape of the country.

Most notably, Citizens United granted corporations, nonprofits, and unions unlimited political spending power.

What’s a PAC got to do with it?

Contrary to popular belief, Citizens United didn’t change the contribution limits on candidates’ official campaign funds. The laws Citizens United overturned were about independent political spending – the kind of spending done by PACs (Political Action Committees).

PACs are independent groups created to raise money to support a particular candidate. Any individual or group can form a PAC. Traditional PACs can donate directly to a candidate’s campaign fund. PACs also generate their own ‘electioneering media’ – like those ubiquitous TV ads promoting or attacking a candidate.

Before Citizens United there were limits on how much money individuals could contribute to PACs, and corporations, unions, and certain types of nonprofits weren’t allowed to give to PACs at all.

Then Citizens United came along and changed the rules of the game.


What exactly did Citizens United do?

Citizens United lifted the limits on how much individuals can contribute to PACs, and allowed corporations, non-profit groups, and unions to give to PACs for the first time (also in unlimited amounts).

The result? A tidal wave of money flooded subsequent elections. For the first time in history, anyone – and any group – could spend unlimited amounts of money promoting a political candidate via super PACs.

It’s important to understand we’re not talking about unlimited campaign contributions here. Citizens United impacted independent political spending only.

A candidate’s official campaign is a whole other animal. PACs are not supposed to coordinate with candidates’ campaigns at all. (In reality, they do all the time, but that’s another story).

What’s the difference between a PAC and a super PAC?

The new rules put in place by Citizens United allowed for the creation of a new kind of PAC known as a “super PAC.”

Super PACs can raise unlimited amounts of money, and can accept unlimited contributions from corporations, non-profit groups, and unions.

Unlike traditional PACs, however, super PACs can’t contribute funds directly to the candidate’s campaign.

PAC vs Super PACs



Why did Citizens United happen?

The funny thing about Citizens United v. FEC is that the case started off as no big deal.

In the heat of the 2008 presidential election, a conservative PAC called “Citizens United” wanted to air a pay-per-view film it produced that was critical of Hillary Clinton. But a law enforced by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) barred paid television broadcasts about individual candidates right before primaries and elections. The FEC wouldn’t allow Citizens United to run its film.

So Citizens United sued the FEC in a lawsuit called “Citizens United v. FEC.” (Hence the eventual shorthand for the case, “Citizens United”).

The people behind the Citizens United PAC weren’t trying to overhaul the country’s campaign finance laws. They were just arguing that the FEC restrictions on TV ads shouldn’t apply to their Hillary pay-per-view film.

The lower court where their case originated ruled against them, so Citizens United took its case all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court Justices who ruled on the case could have given Citizens United everything it was asking for, without changing any laws, by ruling narrowly that the electioneering media restrictions didn’t apply to the Citizens United PAC’s pay-per-view video about Hillary.

But instead, the Supreme Court overturned long-standing campaign finance laws, dramatically changing how elections are funded in the United States.

So what happened? Good question.

Some blame it on a blunder by the FEC’s lawyer. A Justice asked him if current law could theoretically prevent publication of books by political advocacy organizations in time periods preceding elections. He answered a conditional “Yes,”and set off free speech alarm bells. Big time.

Others say the Justices reigning at the time wanted to change the laws and they used the case as an excuse to do so.


What’s the argument in favor of Citizens United?

The Supreme Court Justices who voted in favor of the Citizens United ruling argued that prohibiting or limiting independent expenditures by corporations and certain types of groups violates Americans’ First Amendment right to free speech.

This argument rests on two prior court cases. The first, First National Bank v. Belloti, decided that, as associations of citizens, corporations have a right to free speech (i.e. “corporations are people”). The second, Buckley v. Valeo, decided that spending money to influence elections is a form of constitutionally protected free speech (i.e. “money is speech”).

The logic goes like this: if corporations have a right to free speech, and free speech includes spending money, then preventing corporations from spending money on political speech violates the First Amendment.

“If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” –Justice Kennedy

What’s the argument against Citizens United?

The four Justices who opposed Citizens United, fervently led by Justice Stevens, argued that corporate entities are not “We the People for whom our Constitution was established,” and therefore should not be given free speech protections under the First Amendment.

They argued that corporations can unfairly influence elections with vast sums of money few individuals can match, distorting the public debate, and potentially leading to corruption or the appearance of corruption.

Because the Constitution allows the government to prevent corruption, the dissenting Justices held that corporate political expenses should be regulated. They argued that the unique qualities of corporations and other artificial entities make them dangerous to democratic elections, and that the distorting and corrupting influence of a dominant funding source is a constitutional reason to regulate corporate political spending.

Justice Stevens also asserted that, in their ruling, the Majority Justices addressed a question not raised by the original case and “changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the laws.”

“A democracy cannot function effectively when its constituent members believe laws are being bought and sold.”–Justice Stevens

Did Citizens United make money=free speech?

No. The idea that money=free speech was established in a court case called Buckley v. Valeo. In this case, the Court ruled that spending money to influence elections is a form of free speech and therefore protected by the First Amendment.

Citizens United relied on the principle of “money=free speech” but did not establish it.

Did Citizens United create Corporate Personhood?

No. Many people mistakenly think that Citizens United created the idea that “corporations are people” and are therefore protected by the First Amendment right to free speech. Actually, that idea was first established in a previous court case known as Belloti (shorthand for First National Bank of Boston v. Belloti), which defined corporations as having a right to free speech for the first time.

Citizens United relied on the idea of “corporate personhood” but did not establish it.

What if we could overturn Citizens United?

If we overturned Citizens United, we’d be rid of super PACs, and independent political expenditures would be regulated again. But America would still face a huge corruption problem.

Overturning Citizens United would turn back the campaign finance clock to 2010. But that’s about it. America’s political system is broken – and the problem runs deeper than Citizens United.

Lobbyists are writing laws and effectively bribing legislators. Legislators are turning around and becoming lobbyists. And – super PACs or no – candidates’ campaigns are being funded by a tiny slice of Americans.

The good news? We can beat corruption even without overturning Citizens United.

Hoping Washington will reform itself is like asking the fox to lock up the henhouse. Instead of waiting on Congress, we can go around it.

In cities and states across the country, people are passing laws based on model legislation called The American Anti-Corruption Act. These laws go beyond what overturning Citizens United would do, enacting broad-based reforms to stop political bribery, end secret money, and give voters a stronger voice. And – like many other grassroots campaigns that have ended up changing federal laws – the momentum is building towards a federal victory.

Congress isn’t going to fix this for us. Neither is the Supreme Court. It’s up to us, everyday Americans, to fix our broken political system. That’s how all good things have come about in this country, right? That’s what we, the people, are all about.