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Citizens United v. FEC: A Decision Shaping Campaign Finance

In 2010, the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision that would reshape the landscape of campaign finance in American politics. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), commonly referred to as Citizens United, is a landmark case that dramatically altered the rules governing corporate and union spending in elections. This decision ignited a fierce debate about the role of money in politics, the rights of corporations, and the impact on democratic processes. This article explores the background, details, and the enduring impact of Citizens United v. FEC.


The case of Citizens United v. FEC originated from a dispute over a documentary film called “Hillary: The Movie,” produced by the nonprofit organization Citizens United. The film was critical of Hillary Clinton, who was then a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. The FEC determined that the film constituted an “electioneering communication” under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, also known as the McCain-Feingold Act, and thus was subject to certain campaign finance regulations.

Citizens United challenged the FEC’s decision, arguing that it violated their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, where it would have far-reaching implications for the regulation of political spending.

The Decision

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United, striking down key provisions of the McCain-Feingold Act. The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, held that corporate and union spending on independent political broadcasts could not be limited by the government. The Court argued that political speech is essential to a functioning democracy, and restrictions on such speech should be subject to strict scrutiny.

Key points of the Citizens United decision:

  1. Corporations and unions were granted the same First Amendment rights as individuals when it came to political speech.
  2. The government’s interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption was insufficient to justify limits on independent political expenditures by corporations and unions.
  3. The Court’s decision opened the door to the creation of super PACs (political action committees), which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support or oppose political candidates, as long as they do not coordinate directly with candidates or parties.

Impact and Controversy

Citizens United v. FEC was met with significant controversy and had a profound impact on American politics:

  1. Surge in Political Spending: The decision led to an increase in campaign spending by corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals. Super PACs, in particular, became major players in elections, pouring vast sums of money into advertising and advocacy.
  2. Critics argue that this increased spending has distorted the political process, allowing the wealthiest individuals and large corporations to exert disproportionate influence over elections and policy.
  3. Some argue that the decision has led to an erosion of the principle of “one person, one vote,” as the influence of big money has drowned out the voices of ordinary citizens.
  4. Supporters of Citizens United contend that it protects free speech rights and allows a diversity of voices to be heard in the political arena.
  5. Many state and local governments have tried to implement regulations to counteract the effects of the decision, but these efforts have often been challenged in court.


Citizens United v. FEC remains one of the most controversial and consequential Supreme Court decisions in recent memory. It fundamentally altered the campaign finance landscape, giving corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals more influence in the political process. While proponents argue that it upholds the principles of free speech, opponents contend that it has distorted the democratic system. The legacy of Citizens United continues to shape the debate over money in politics and the role of corporations in American democracy, making it a decision that will be remembered and debated for years to come.


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