Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

PETITIONER: Citizens United
RESPONDENT: Federal Election Commission
LOCATION: Citizens United Headquarters

DOCKET NO.: 08-205
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2009-2010)

CITATION: 558 US (2010)
GRANTED: Nov 14, 2008
ARGUED: Mar 24, 2009
REARGUED: Sep 09, 2009
DECIDED: Jan 21, 2010

Elena Kagan - Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent
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
Theodore B. Olson - argued the cause for the appellant

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 money" campaign 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.


1) Did the Supreme Court's decision in McConnell resolve all constitutional as-applied challenges to the BCRA when it upheld the disclosure requirements of the statute as constitutional?

2) Do the BCRA's disclosure requirements impose an unconstitutional burden when applied to electioneering requirements because they are protected "political speech" and not subject to regulation as "campaign speech"?

3) If a communication lacks a clear plea to vote for or against a particular candidate, is it subject to regulation under the BCRA?

4) Should a feature length documentary about a candidate for political office be treated like the advertisements at issue in McConnell and therefore be subject to regulation under the BCRA?

Media for Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 24, 2009 in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission
Audio Transcription for Oral Reargument - September 09, 2009 in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - January 21, 2010 in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

In case 08-205, Citizens United versus the FEC, Justice Kennedy has the opinion of the Court.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which is known is BCRA, was enacted by Congress in 2002, and BCRA, that Act incorporates a prohibition on certain political contributions and expenditures by corporations.

That prohibition is in Section 441b of the Act.

Section 441b prohibits corporations from making certain independent expenditures to support candidates for federal office.

For purposes of this case, the Act prohibits first; independent expenditures for speech in any media that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a candidate for federal office, and second; the Act also prohibits independent expenditures that the Act defines as "electioneering communications" and an election commun – an election -- "electioneering communication" is any broadcast, satellite or cable communication that refers to a clearly identified candidate for federal office and one that is made within either 30 days of a primary election or 60 days of a general election.

This Court's opinion in McConnell versus Federal Election Commission upheld Section 441b and other provisions of the Act against the broad facial constitutional challenge.

McConnell relied upon the Court's earlier decision in a case called Austin versus Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

Now, this case involves a corporation that planned to broadcast the film in the year 2008, which was a presidential election year.

The film was entitled “Hillary: The Movie.”

The film was a commentary on the career and background of then Senator Hillary Clinton who was a candidate in the presidential primaries.

The corporation that made the movie and wanted to broadcast it is the appellant in this case, Citizens United.

Citizens United was concerned that the broadcast would be prohibited by the Act, thus making the corporation and its responsible officials liable for criminal and civil penalties.

So the corporation sought a judicial determination that would allow it to broadcast the film.

The corporation proposed to broadcast the film by video-on-demand, that would’ve allowed viewers to choose the film and then watch it on their own TV sets through cable television and Citizens United proposed to make the movie available through video-on-demand free of charge.

Relying on our cases, the three-judge district court rejected Citizens United constitutional challenge to Section 441b.

The trial court ruled that it would be unlawful under the Act for the corporation to broadcast or promote the movie during the 30 and 60-day periods.

The case came before us on appeal and it was argued last term.

This Court ordered reargument to address whether the Court should overrule either or both Austin and that part of McConnell which addresses the facial validity of Section 441b and our opinion as announced in this session today pursuant to the statute that directs us to expedite constitutional challenges to BCRA and the disposition of those challenges.

Citizens United and some amici have made various arguments to the effect that corporate political speech prohibition in a 441b would be invalid, just as applied to the facts of this case, leaving the question of its facial validity to another day.

There is, for instance, a preliminary argument that the film is something other than the functional equivalent of express advocacy for or against the candidate so that the film should be exempt from the statutory ban under one of our precedents, Federal Election Commission versus Wisconsin Right to Life.

We reject that argument.

The film is quite critical of Senator Clinton.

We agree with the trial court that the film is susceptible of no other interpretation than to argue to the public that she lacked qualifications for the office.

Example of other as-applied arguments are (1), since each broadcast would go to a single household, then the broadcast would not meet the statutory coverage requirement for 50,000 or more persons and (2), another alternative argument is that Citizens United is a nonprofit corporation and that the statute could be safe from judicial attack by interpreting the statute or really judicially rewriting it, so it does not include nonprofit corporations.

We conclude that these suggestions, and some of them are made by Citizens United and some by amici, are not sustainable under a fair reading of the statute.

In addition to the difficulties in interpreting the statute in these ways, the time, expense and uncertainty involved in case-by-case determination to elaborate as applied exceptions, would chill political speech.

So, these difficulties require us to ask, if the statutory prohibition applicable to corporate political speech is constitutional as a general matter.

Austin versus Michigan Chamber of Commerce, one of this Court's cases, upheld the ban on corporate political speech and as already noted, the McConnell decision in turn relied upon Austin.

We conclude that those precedents now must be reexamined.

The Court has recognized that First Amendment protection extends to corporations.