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Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

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A corporation: citizen or not? It cannot walk and it cannot sleep; it has almost no characteristics of a human. Yet, it has First Amendment rights.

In 2002, Congress passed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), which prohibited corporations and unions from using general treasury funds to advocate the election or defeat of a stated candidate for federal office, by ways of broadcast, satellite or cable communication. Citizens United is a nonprofit corporation, and in 2008, it released a documentary critical of then Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton within 30 days of the primaries. Knowing that this release would be in violation of the BCRA, they sought injunctive relief, essentially the voiding of criminal and civil penalties for committing an act. However, this was denied by the District Court, and Citizens United appealed to the Supreme Court.

The case was heard on September 9, 2009. The vote was 5-4, in favor of Citizens United. The majority argued a few main arguments.

Firstly, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce was overruled. This decision would have upheld the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, a law prohibiting corporations from using treasury money to support or oppose a candidate for state office. There were two main reasons for it being overturned. First, there were conflicting precedents, that said that speech could not be restricted because of corporate identity, per the First Amendment, which is in clear conflict with Austin. The Court stated that Austin’s rationale and the Government’s other arguments were not sufficient to hold Austin. Furthermore, they argued that a ban on political speech based on corporate identity would go against the First Amendment ban on the punishment of citizens for political speech. Furthermore, the Court argued, if Austin were to be in place, media corporations’ political speech would also have to be banned. It also extended to all corporations, even those with one shareholder. Therefore, Austin provides for overbroad censorship. So, because of the lack of precedent from Austin, the parts of the BCRA that prohibited expenditures for ‘electioneering communication’ before 30 days of a major political event was struck down, as well as any upholding of the law. Therefore, those parts of the BCRA could not be applied to the documentary, and so the documentary could air.

Although the documentary was able to air, the Court upheld one part of the BCRA: the requirements for disclosure and disclaimer, as there was governmental interest in providing voters with information, unless they could show that there would be significant harassment if they were to disclose. Therefore, those parts of the BCRA are upheld. The Court upheld that, at the very least, Citizens United had to show that their broadcasts were not funded by any candidate or political organization. Furthermore, although, Citizens United tried to show that donors might face retaliation, which would have made the stipulation in the BCRA applicable, but did not present any evidence.

Citizens United did not change anything about direct contributions, but it did affect corporate speech restrictions.

Many have criticized the case, as the basic premise of a corporation having rights is not justified to them.

What do you think? Share in the comments below.

Disclaimer:  This column is not an adequate or appropriate replacement or substitute for legal advice. The Northwest Youth Journal or any of its affiliates are void of any liability stemming from this article. Contact your lawyer for legal advice.



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