I was recently over hearing a bunch of people arguing about this case at a coffee shop and I know in law school we discussed this briefly, but I wanted to refresh my recollection and that it would make for an interesting thread.
My understanding of the case is as follows:
A conservative group Citizens United wanted to air a documentary bashing Hilary Clinton before the Democratic Primary election. There was a Federal Statute that stood in the way of airing the documentary.
Citizen United filed suit alleging the statute violated their free speech and the documentary should be allowed. The court then decided by a 5-4 funding the documentary was free speech and allowed, which in essence allowed corporations to provide more money to campaigns to protect freedom of speech.
First I was wondering if my understanding is even correct and what people think.
My two cents if my understanding is correct is that groups, corporations, people, etc should be able to say what they want to say, but I understand the argument that is creates an unfair playing field.
Overhearing that conversation made me think of this board and I wanted to see if anyone had additional insight.
Your understanding is pretty close but there was a little bit more to this case which made it so controversial.
As you mentioned earlier, this all started back in 2008 when Citizens United, a conservative non-profit corporation, created a 90-minute documentary right before the '08 Democratic Primary urging voters not to vote for Hillary Clinton. It wanted to distribute this movie through cable TV's video-on-demand feature. However, there are Federal Laws in place (at least there were before this ruling) that regulate corportions from spending money when it comes to political elections. One such law was the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, also known as the McCain–Feingold Act, named after the two senators that proposed it, John McCain (R-AZ) and Russell Feingold (D-WI). In a nut shell, the Act prohibited corporations and unions from using their money to (1) make direct contributions to political candidates, or (2) advocate the election or defeat of a political candidate through any form of media. The Act also required corporations or unions to place disclaimers on whatever political ads they made. Citizens United argued that it should be able to show the Hillary movie on-demand (complete without disclaimers) because it has a right to free speech. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) argued that its enforcement of these regulations against corportions and unions was constitutional because, unlike people, neither corporations or unions have a 1st Amendment right to free speech.
The FEC won below and Citizens United appealed to the Supreme Court which ruled 5-4 down ideological lines that corporations have a 1st Amendment right to free speech AND that right includes the right to spend as much money as they wish in political elections.
Mind you, the opinion did not say that only American corporations have a 1st Amendment right to spend as much as they want in our elections, it said any corporation. So the holding quite literally allows for foreign interests to influence US elections if they are so inclined.
In addition to that controversy, the opinion also overturned an old precedent Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U.S. 652 (1990). Austin was a Supreme Court case written by the late Justice Thurgood Marshall that specifically ruled that corporations do NOT have a First Amendment right to free speech because, as Thurgood put it, "[c]orporate wealth can unfairly influence elections." 494 U.S. at 660. Which I'm sure most people would consider to be common sense.
In my opinion, the Court got this one wrong. Instead of taking this case as an opportunity to overturn Austin, they should have limited themselves to the problem that was squarely before them which was whether or not McCain-Feingold allowed corporations to put election videos on-demand. Instead of carving out that narrow restriction, they instead broadened their ruling so as to allow corporations and unions to spend unlimited money in elections under the pretext of "free speech." By my view, we should be trying to get money OUT of our elections, not coming up with ways to put even more money into them.
My 2 cents for what it's worth.