Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Case Brief

Facts of the case

Citizens United sought an injunction against the Federal Election Commission in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to prevent the application of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) to its film Hillary: The Movie . The Movie expressed opinions about whether Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton would make a good president.In an attempt to regulate big moneycampaign contributions, the BCRA applies a variety of restrictions to electioneering communications.Section 203 of the BCRA prevents corporations or labor unions from funding such communication from their general treasuries. Sections 201 and 311 require the disclosure of donors to such communication and a disclaimer when the communication is not authorized by the candidate it intends to support.Citizens United argued that: 1) Section 203 violates the First Amendment on its face and when applied to The Movie and its related advertisements, and that 2) Sections 201 and 203 are also unconstitutional as applied to the circumstances.The United States District Court denied the injunction. Section 203 on its face was not unconstitutional because the Supreme Court in McConnell v. FEC had already reached that determination. The District Court also held that The Movie was the functional equivalent of express advocacy, as it attempted to inform voters that Senator Clinton was unfit for office, and thus Section 203 was not unconstitutionally applied. Lastly, it held that Sections 201 and 203 were not unconstitutional as applied to the The Movie or its advertisements. The court reasoned that the McConnell decision recognized that disclosure of donors might be unconstitutional if it imposed an unconstitutional burden on the freedom to associate in support of a particular cause,but those circumstances did not exist in Citizen United’s claim.

Why is the case important?

Citizens United created a documentary aimed at Senator Clinton during the 2008 race, and ran ads to urge others to order it on-demand to watch.


Whether section 441b of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act BCRA which criminalizes ads produced by corporations that expressly advocate for or against a candidate within 30 days of the primary elections and within 60 days of the general election is constitutional.


No. The Government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker’s corporate identity. Corporations have long been held to enjoy Constitutional rights of Freedom of Speech just like an individual, regardless of their status of for-profit or non-profit. The government does not have any sufficient interest in the complete ban of such advertisement. The court discusses how there has been a constant struggle between the Judiciary and Congress to prevent corruption during election season, and protecting Freedom of Speech rights afforded to persons and corporations. The court also mentions that some corporations are Media corporations made to create news. Banning all corporations from political speech is too broad and the constitution will not allow it. The Government to support this ban, states the compelling interest is in preventing the corrosive and distorting effects of immense aggregation of wealth that are accumulated with the help of corporate form. That can not be sufficient to state that corporation’s rights of Freedom of Speech should be taken from it, simply because it has the funds to support its ideas.


  • Advocates: Theodore B. Olson argued the cause for the appellant Floyd Abrams on behalf of Senator Mitch McConnell, as amicus curiae, in support of the appellant Seth P. Waxman on behalf of Senators John McCain et al. as amici curiae in support of the appellee Elena Kagan Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent
  • Petitioner: Citizens United
  • Respondent: Federal Election Commission
  • DECIDED BY:Roberts Court
  • Location: Citizens United Headquarters
Citation: 558 US _ (2010)
Granted: Nov 14, 2008
Argued: Mar 24, 2009
ReArgued: Sep 9, 2009
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Case Brief