In a move that provoked reactions varying from rejoicing to shock and anger, the United States Supreme Court nullified twenty-year-old limits on campaign advertising by corporations and labor unions.
In Citizens United v. FEC, the Court ruled 5-4 that federal laws (and previous Court rulings) that forbid a company or a union to spend its own general treasury funds to make campaign advertisements, of whatever length and for whatever distribution channel, are unconstitutional abridgments of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech….
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Anthony Kennedy (no kin) formed the majority. Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
The case arose out of the production of Hillary: The Movie by Citizens United, and the decision by the Federal Elections Commission to forbid Citizens United to distribute their movie through video-on-demand channels nationwide. The FEC said that the movie was not a documentary, but a political ad, and should be regulated as one. The Supreme Court effectively said that if it were a political ad, then the FEC still had no authority to forbid its distribution through any channel. Writing for the majority, Kennedy argued forcefully that the First Amendment, if it means anything at all, forbids the government to curtail political speech. He also objected strongly to such apparent quibbles as the “form” that an “association of citizens” took.
Justice Stevens, writing in dissent, suggested that the decision “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions around the nation.” Liberal activists like Bob Edgar of Common Cause and Richard Hasen, columnist for Slate, agreed. Hasen suggested that the Court was laying the foundation for overturning other campaign-finance limits that the Citizens United case did not materially affect, should someone challenge those limits in future.
Yesterday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed an executive order limiting campaign donations by labor unions having collective-bargaining contracts with the State. Democratic politicians and union officials vowed to appeal and declared flatly that Christie’s order would not withstand legal challenge. Whether the Citizens United case would necessarily affect that order, which affected only those unions having State contracts and not unions having contracts with private businesses and other entities within New Jersey, is not clear.
Like this article? Want to be notified of more? Click Subscribe, above.