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Business LibreTexts

1.5: Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee: Do corporations have free speech?

  • Page ID
  • Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2008)

    The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (known as BCRA or McCain-Feingold Act) prohibited corporations and unions from using their general treasury to fund “electioneering communications” (broadcast advertisements mentioning a candidate) within 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election.

    The Case

    In this case, the conservative lobbying group Citizens United wanted to air a film critical of Hillary Clinton and to advertise the film during television broadcasts in apparent violation of the 2002 BCRA. The United States District Court for the District of Columbia the BCRA prohibited Citizens United from advertising the film Hillary: The Movie in broadcasts or paying to have it shown on television within 30 days of the 2008 Democratic primaries. The Supreme Court reversed this decision, striking down those provisions of BCRA that prohibited corporations (including nonprofit corporations) and unions from making independent expenditures and “electioneering communications”.  The Court, however, upheld requirements for public disclosure by sponsors of advertisements. The case did not involve the federal ban on direct contributions from corporations or unions to candidate campaigns or political parties, which remain illegal in races for federal office.

    The Supreme Court held in Citizens United that it was unconstitutional to ban free speech through the limitation of independent communications by corporations, associations, and unions. With this ruling, corporations and labor unions may spend their own money to support or oppose political candidates through independent communications like television advertisements.

    The Impact

    In Citizens United v. Federal Election Committee the Supreme Court ruled that political speech is indispensable to a democracy, which is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation.

    Justice Scalia discusses the Citizens United case and the reasons why he believes such freedom of speech is important.


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