On January 21, 2010, the Supreme Court decided in the landmark and controversial First Amendment case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that the government could not restrict corporations, associations, and labor unions from making independent expenditures in support of or opposition to candidates.
Citizen United’s detractors often claim that the decision allowed unlimited corporate spending in elections, but this isn’t quite true. While the decision allowed corporations, labor unions, and trade associations to spend unlimited sums on independent speech about candidates, it did not affect preexisting limits (or bans, in some states) on contributions directly to candidates’ campaigns. This is a crucial distinction that is often missed in discussions of the case.
Another oft-repeated claim is that the decision allowed foreigners to influence our elections. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United did not broach the issue of political activity of foreign corporations. Specifically, according to 2 U.S.C. § 441(e), any “partnership, association, corporation, organization, or other combination of persons organized under the laws of, or having its principal place of business in, a foreign country” is prohibited from contributing in elections.
While the Justices voted 8-1 to uphold requirements for public disclosure in Citizens United, what the Justices actually reaffirmed was the existing disclosure regime, according to the precedents of Buckley v. Valeo and others cases. Indeed, the Supreme Court has continued to demonstrate concern over the deterrent effect disclosure may have on First Amendment rights.
Writing for the Court’s majority in Citizens United, Justice Kennedy quoted the Court in an earlier decision, reiterating that “the worth of speech ‘does not depend upon the identity of its source, whether corporation, association, union, or individual.’” Ultimately, the Court’s decision was a victory for the First Amendment’s guarantee of free political speech for all speakers.