A U.S. Supreme Court decision that forever altered the country’s political landscape, First Amendment cases and election laws all started with a movie. In January 2008, Citizens United, a nonprofit corporation, released a documentary entitled Hillary: The Movie whose purpose was to show that then New York senator Hillary Clinton, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, was not fit to be the President of the United States. At issue was who paid for the movie and how.

The movie was distributed in theaters and on DVD’s, but Citizens United also wanted to make it available through video-on-demand. It created ads promoting the film and hoping to show them on broadcast and cable television. To pay for the video-on-demand distribution and the advertisements, Citizens United planned to use its general treasury funds.

At the time, the federal Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA)

  • Prohibited corporations and unions from spending their general treasury funds on “electioneering communications” or for speech that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a candidate.

  • Required any televised electioneering communications funded by anyone other than a candidate for office to include a clear, readable disclaimer displayed on the screen for at least four seconds. The disclaimer would identify the person or organization responsible for the advertisement, the address or website of the responsible party, and a statement that the advertisement “is not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.”

  • Required any person spending more than $10,000 on electioneering communications during a calendar year to file a disclosure statement with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) identifying the person, the amount, the election to which the communication was directed, and the names of certain contributors

Citizens United, fearing the movie would be covered under the law sought an injunction in 2007 against the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) in federal district court. They argued the law was unconstitutional as applied to them and the movie. The district court denied this motion and granted summary judgment to the FEC. The decision was appealed.

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions have the same political speech rights as individuals under the First Amendment. It found no compelling government interest for prohibiting corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds to make unlimited, anonymous, election-related independent expenditures, striking down related sections of the BCRA, two of its prior decisions and called into questions 24 state statutes that covered funding of politics and elections.

Additionally, in an 8-1 decision, the Court ruled that the disclaimer and disclosure requirements associated with electioneering communications are constitutional.

As a result of the Citizens United decision, independent political action committees can obtain unlimited funds from individuals, unions, businesses and corporations without having to name donors. This has altered the political landscape of the country because unions, corporations and individuals can spent anything they’re willing and able to, to support a candidate or cause, without any accountability or scrutiny because their donations need not be disclosed. Some of these spending controls came about as a result of the Watergate scandal in which President Nixon used “slush fund” political contributions to finance “smear campaigns” against perceived enemies and to cover up illegal activities.

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