Questions and answers about the Supreme Court's ruling on
campaign finance and how it will change America's elections.
On Jan. 21, the US Supreme Court announced a landmark decision
establishing for the first time that corporations enjoy the same
First Amendment free-speech rights as individuals.
The 5-to-4 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election
Commission has touched off dire predictions by campaign finance-
reform advocates that campaigns for Congress and the presidency will
soon be flooded with corporate dollars and influence.
Supporters of the decision say that the reformers' rhetoric is
overblown and that the opinion reflects proper respect for free-
Why are advocates of campaign finance reform so upset?
For nearly 40 years there has been a fundamental debate raging
over how best to finance American political campaigns.
On one side, liberal reformers have sought to limit the influence
of wealthy corporate interests by emphasizing the importance of
maintaining a "level playing field." They have argued that
corporations and labor unions could dominate the airwaves with slick
and highly effective attack ads, leaving no time for the targeted
candidates to respond. If American democracy is based on the
principle of one person, one vote, they say, then corporations must
be muzzled during political campaigns to prevent their amassed
wealth from dominating and corrupting a political campaign.
Conservatives and libertarians, on the other hand, have countered
that limiting the amount of money a corporation - or anyone - can
spend to make their political point is censorship and a violation of
the letter and spirit of the First Amendment's guarantee of free
speech. Corporate power and influence aren't inherently corrupting,
they say, as long as they're part of a vibrant debate within an open
marketplace of ideas.
The debate most recently arose at the Supreme Court after the
conservative advocacy group Citizens United, a corporation, was
prevented from airing a 90-minute documentary critical of then-
candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. The group wanted to air the film
on pay-per-view cable television. The Federal Election Commission
determined that the documentary, "Hillary: The Movie," was a form of
electioneering that could be regulated under federal election laws.
The FEC also ruled that advertisements about the film could be
regulated, too. A panel of three federal judges upheld the FEC
ruling. Citizens United then appealed to the Supreme Court.
High court decisions in 1990 and 2003 had strengthened the hand
of those arguing for restrictions on corporations and for creation
of a level campaign playing field. But other decisions since the
1970s advanced the idea that spending money in elections - even
corporate money - can involve an expression of free speech.
What happened on Jan. 21 with the decision in Citizens United v.
FEC is that five of the nine justices decided to erase the two key
precedents that had laid the groundwork for reform focused on
creating a level playing field. Those arguments have now been
That's why campaign advocates of finance reform view the decision
as akin to being pushed off a cliff. The decision marks the end of
what had been a spirited debate over how to achieve the highest
promise of American democracy.
Instead of a tightly regulated level playing field, the
conservative wing of the Supreme Court has pointed America toward a
messy "marketplace of ideas." In Justice Anthony Kennedy's view, if
corporate speech presents a threat of undue influence in American
politics, the proper response in the spirit of the First Amendment
is to meet it with even more speech.
Won't corporations control everything?
The Supreme Court did not jettison all campaign finance
restrictions. Corporations and unions are still prohibited from
making direct contributions to federal candidates. …