Citizens United is a non-profit advocacy group that sued the Federal Election Commission for preventing the broadcast, in the months leading up to the 2008 election, of a political pay-per-view video they had produced. The case wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court and “Citizens United” became the shorthand description of the decision the Court made in that case, which was handed down in January, 2010.

Ted Olson

The case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC), centered on a purely technical issue related to “electioneering communication” that centered on messages aired on “broadcast, cable or satellite” radio and television. The lawyer for Citizens United, former Solicitor General Ted Olson, was asking for the FEC ruling to be overturned on purely technical grounds, based on the argument that the existing campaign finance law did not apply to movies broadcast on pay-per-view, and that the disclosure requirements on ads for the movie didn’t apply because the ads did not represent “express advocacy” as defined in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. As Jeffrey Toobin put it in his article for The New Yorker, “if the Justices had resolved the case as Olson had suggested, today Citizens United might well be forgotten — a narrow ruling on a remote aspect of campaign-finance law.”

Justice Kennedy

Instead, the line of questioning came around to including ALL forms of communication, including print, and led to an exchange between the Justices and the government’s lawyer (representing the FEC) that ended with Justice Kennedy asking, “Well, suppose it were an advocacy organization that had a book. Your position is that, under the Constitution, the advertising for this book or the sale for the book itself could be prohibited within the sixty- and thirty-day periods?”

The government’s lawyer allowed himself to be boxed-in by the line of questioning and, based on the reasoning he had presented to the Court up to that point, was forced to agree that the answer to that question was a qualified “yes.” That’s when an otherwise obscure and sleepy case–as Justice Scalia put it, a “statutory argument”–became the foundation for sweeping new case law that struck down much of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law and overturned several Supreme Court precedents upholding the government’s power to place strict rules on electioneering expenditures. The majority of five justices repeatedly described statutory limits on the amount of money that can be spent as limits on speech, and refused to entertain the argument that outside groups are able to coordinate with candidate campaigns, holding instead that the mere existence of a separate entity, even one explicitly connected to a candidate and operated by the candidates friends, family members and allies (as many super PACs are), obviates any form of corruption or even appearance of corruption. The Citizens United ruling explicitly defined the spending of money as a form of constitutionally protected speech and expressly forbade the Federal Election Commission from enforcing spending limits on outside groups that purport to be independent of a political campaign, even if the outside group is directly advocating for or against a particular candidate.

Super PACs emerged following the Appellate Court ruling in v. FEC. From the FEC’s website:
The court of appeals held that when the government attempts to regulate the financing of political campaigns and express advocacy through contribution limits, it must have a countervailing interest that outweighs the limit’s burden on the exercise of First Amendment rights. In light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Citizens United v. FEC, in which the Supreme Court held that the government has no anti-corruption interest in limiting independent expenditures, the appeals court ruled that “contributions to groups that make only independent expenditures cannot corrupt or create the appearance of corruption.” As a result, the court of appeals held that the government has no anti-corruption interest in limiting contributions to an independent group such as SpeechNow. Contribution limits as applied to SpeechNow “violate the First Amendment by preventing [individuals] from donating to SpeechNow in excess of the limits and by prohibiting SpeechNow from accepting donations in excess of the limits.”

There are several points to note about the Citizens United case. First, the plaintiff, Citizens United, was not asking the Court to strike down any laws, but merely to correctly apply the existing law to their specific case. The fact that the line of questioning even came up suggests to many Supreme Court watchers that the Justices were looking for a way to expand the scope of the case, in an instance of what many critics describe as “judicial activism.” Second, while some critics describe this ruling as the origin of “corporate personhood,” the truth is that corporations have been accepted as “artificial persons” since the concept was confirmed in an early Supreme Court decision in the case of Dartmouth College v. Woodward in 1819. The term “artificial” has been gradually removed from the concept over many decades in a series of Supreme Court rulings that started with an erroneous headnote in another otherwise obscure case, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, in 1886. The non-profit group, Citizens United, would not have been able to assert its own constitutional rights of free speech without those precedents.

Lastly, Citizens United did not create the concept of “money = speech,” or more properly stated, the spending of money as a form of constitutionally protected speech. That precedent was first hinted at in another Supreme Court ruling, Buckley v. Valeo, in 1976, and formally established as precedent in a later case, First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, in 1978. However, taken together, these rulings, and several others, laid the foundation for the ruling in the Citizens United case. Without the precedents established by those and several other Supreme Court decisions, the Justices on this Court would not have had the foundation upon which to rest their ruling in Citizens United.

501c_spending_thru_2016_augCitizens United did not establish corporate personhood but it was grounded in corporate personhood. It did not establish the concept of money as speech, but was grounded in money as speech. Citizens United did not create the problem of extreme wealth acting as a corrupting influence on elections, it merely made it worse… much worse. And while it may not have led to massive donations directly to super PACs by corporations, it enabled corporations and other big money donors—including foreign interests—to shield their contributions by funneling money through entities that are not required to disclose donor information. It also further recognized all artificial entities (including PACs and super PACs, for-profit corporations, non-profits, unions, NGOs, etc) as effectively “natural” persons with constitutional rights.

It shouldn’t be as easy as going to LegalZoom to create an immortal artificial entity that has all the immunities of limited liability plus the same unalienable rights as living, breathing citizens, without any of the responsibilities or penalties that ordinary people can face when they violate the law. People opposed to the Citizens United ruling believe individual rights—not those of corporations, unions or other artificial entities—should be, and traditionally have been, preeminent in the U.S. Constitution. As a matter of principle, this is neither a conservative nor a liberal position, it is a Constitutional truth that the Supreme Court has been steadily eroding for more than 120 years. If that isn’t judicial activism, the phrase has no meaning.



  1. Clayton Smith

    The Problem: Washington DC (all three branches of the federal government)
    The Solution as big as the Problem: Article V of the US Constitution…

    The Founders saw this day coming and they gave us a tool contained in Article V to empower the states to reign in the federal government. We can either get involved today; or we can think about what we’re going to say to our children and grandchildren when they look back and have to ask, “What did you do to try and save our country?” Don’t be one of those who stood by and did nothing.

    • Lantz Hastings


    • lantz

      Well that corruption runs all the way down to state level… so what have you to say about that?

  2. Mary Garcia

    After reading this im still unsure what citizens united is or stands for. I have received petitions to sign against citizens united, but will not until I completely understand what it stands for. I do understand that groups have a way of twisting things/words to there favor. Could you please explain to me what citizens united stands for and thank you.

    • Grace

      I thought the same thing as you….here is an interesting article that I found helpful.
      Of course, anything that is read, is written by someone…and who knows how much bias is in the article.

    • Georgie

      It means the’ good ol’ boy’ system the Republicans use to keep feeding each other money is legally accepted. Individuals donating have a cap- a certain $ amount they cannot exceed, but as part of a PAC or super PAC, those same individuals can give yet more $ legally thru those PACs…it’s a way to get around the laws governing the individual caps! With a few exceptions, The rich think they are entitled, due to money and ego, to set the rules for the rest of (us) American citizens, and are themselves exempt from laws that govern the rest of the world! They just want to build their bank accounts, at any cost, they don’t worry about ‘others’ or the earth!

      • Chris

        Yep it means Hilkary can keep getting funding by middle eastern Muslims…

    • MeToo

      Me too, Mary.

    • Paul Westlake Paul Westlake

      If you’re asking what the non-profit group, Citizens United, “stands for,” as in what their agenda is, you can read all about it on their website. Just google it. If you’re asking what the term, Citizens United, stands for, as in what it means on all those petitions people ask you to sign, it is the Supreme Court decision of January, 2010, that struck down large portions of federal and state campaign finance regulations, giving rise to the invention of the “super PAC.” Super PACs are used as a means of funneling big money from outside groups, corporations, wealthy individuals and even foreign interests into the American political process. It is the anonymity that results from the lack of reporting requirements that allow foreign interests to avoid detection and get around the long-standing federal law that bars foreign interests from contributing to political campaigns in America. Politics and elections were far from perfect before the Citizens United ruling, but the pay-for-play culture of Washington (and the states) was given a high octane boost with Citizens United and subsequent cases (like McCutcheon v. FEC). The reason so many people believe we need a constitutional amendment is because the ruling hinged on an illogically expansive interpretation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

      • Patty

        It sounds like Greek to the regular lay person. I guess that would be me include. I don’t get it no matter what I read. Can you explain in Kindergarten Language Please.:)lol. Thank you. Respectfully Patty

        • Paul Westlake Paul Westlake

          Hi Patty,

          Citizens United v. FEC is one of many cases that have prevented the U.S. Congress from implementing meaningful campaign finance regulations, even those supported by a majority of elected officials from both major parties. The ability of big money special interests to use their wealth to gain favors and special treatment in Congress is nothing new and didn’t begin with the Citizens United ruling, but the decision made it much worse.

          In campaign language, “outside spending” means money spent by any group or individual that is not the candidate or the candidate’s committee. Before Citizens United, there were limits on the amount of money any “outside” individual or association (including unions and corporations) could spend to influence the outcome of an election. There were also restrictions on “outside spending” to air radio and TV ads to influence an election for 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election. The result of the Citizens United decision is, essentially, that those limits and restrictions are now gone.

          The existence of the “super PAC,” organizations formed specifically to raise and spend money on elections (the newest form of “outside spending”), is entirely the result of the Citizens United decision and its impact on lower court rulings that came after it (see Speechnow v. FEC). Super PACs collect money from wealthy special interests (mostly) and use it to punish elected officials who oppose their agenda both in primaries and in general elections. Super PACs can receive tax-exempt status from the IRS under either section 501(c)4 or 527 of the tax code. 527s have fewer restrictions on election spending and lobbying legislatures (federal, state, local) but they have to disclose their donors. 501(c)4s have to be more careful about how they spend the money they raise but they don’t have to disclose their donors, thus the term “dark money.”

          Citizens United serves as a rallying cry because it’s one of the most recent examples of the Supreme Court favoring the elite and well-connected over ordinary citizens. But decisions like the one in Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius, which recognized a First Amendment right to freedom of religion for a corporation (a legal fiction that only exists in law and certainly doesn’t go to church), go much further than campaign finance. That’s why all serious amendment activist insist upon including a section on preventing the Supreme Court from recognizing constitutional rights for corporations, non-profits, unions and all other artificial entities.

          This might have been a longer answer than you were looking for. Please let me know if I can answer any questions, clarify a point here, etc. And thanks for stopping by!


    • Lawrence D. Moore

      it means that big Corporations can give a unlimited amount of money to whomever they want, the problem is that money is the problem with our govt.

    • Lashuan Morris

      I feel the exact same way the ppl on the hill they lie so freaking muc. What I think the ppl should is fire everyone of them on Election Day. America is Rome all over again. And Paul Ryan looks like Roman Emperor Constantine

  3. robert

    I don’t understand what the big deal is. Campaign finance laws seem like a waste of time and effort. Let people, corporations, whoever, dump as much money as they want into elections. I for one get sick and tired of seeing and hearing commercials. I tune them out every time. I don’t seriously believe that people vote on their candidate because they had more commercials. The way I see it, let them dump tons of money into losing campaigns. The candidate should not be allowed to keep it. Just make sure all the money that is donated gets spent. It will benefit the economy.

    • joey

      We people of the united states of America Do Not Elect anyone for president, the electoral college does that. A good example of this is when Walter Mondale won the popular vote (the peoples vote) but did not get elected. This was started way back when White land owners got together and formed the electoral college to insure that they would always be protected from from everyone else. Thus this system is still in effect and as long as we the people allow this to happen it will always be the rich that decide the average persons fate.

      • LouDawg

        Walter Mondale didn’t win anything but his home state – and only by about 4000 votes. You might be thinking of Al Gore. But he wasn’t the first to “win” the popular vote but lose the election. Since you seem to know only a little about history and are just parroting something you heard someone else say: the “white land owners” did not set up the electoral college to shield themselves from everyone else (that actually makes zero sense). It was established in the constitution when the federal government was designed to be weak vs the states. People considered themselves citizens of their states first and Amercians second. The states would choose the president, with each state casting votes – hence the electoral college. It is a holdover from (and a reminder of) the mindset of the founding fathers when setting up our federal government.

        • John Batliner

          That is precisely correct Lou. Nice to read a concise and accurate reply for once.

  4. Anthony Minnichsoffer

    American politics grows astronomically more unconscionably frustrating by the minute. Read all this gibberish about this and other complacent and insipid arguments from both sides. Learn all about all the laws and regs. and commissions and causes and effects for and of co-called “election reform” since the 1960s. Then any sensible conscientious person with even most minuscule wisdom must conclude that this is why someone like Donald Trump could rise toward the presidency. We’re frustrated with all you big corporate power brokers, derivative investment schemers, international bankers, super PACs, your highly paid lobbyists and lawyers and the tens of thousands of regulations that only make our beautiful republic into a messed up, polarized, fractionated plantation.
    Few of the politicians and schemers that create this infinitely tangled mess ever have or would know how to produce anything tangible.
    We simply do NOT get the best government that good citizens deserve.
    Tony M.

    • Teresa

      Very well said

    • GINA



      • The GREAT CLINTON ERA? The Clintons were corrupt long before they appeared on the national scene. Search out YouTubes involving “Mena, Arkansas and the Clintons” or “Larry Nichols” or “Clinton Chronicles” or the shorter and less bloody, “The New Clinton Chronicles.”

        Might you have been thinking of THE REAGAN ERA as being the best in our country?”

        • Lawrence D. Moore

          if you think the movie actor was great you must not do any research, all you have to do is google or yahoo ( kill the messenger)

  5. John Batliner

    Anthony, I couldn’t agree with you more. Unfortunately, by perusing other replies it seems that too many think that all of that money and advertising has no affect. Some think that somehow, the everyday working person is going to take the time to thoroughly research the issues and sift out the broadcast and published exaggerations, inaccuracies and downright lies that are thrown onto the political canvas. Most people don’t take the time to check their sources. Although Trump isn’t supported by any of the huge Super PACs like Citizens Unired, he is a perfect example of spreading “pants on fire” political lies that can easily be fact checked, but no one who supports him seems to bother or care.

  6. Anthony Minnichsoffer

    Well, this election’s a contest between pants on fire and pants suit on fire. But, let’s face it. Humans lie! However, some do it to such an exponential extent that they “short circuit.”
    I have deep contempt for both candidates. Don’t we deserve better?
    Which do you think has the more perfect deception going? It should not be difficult to choose between a man who’s made and lost fortunes in business or a woman who has left a scorched earth trail of scandals (i.e. Whitewater, Travelgate, hush money paid to her philandering husband’s numerous mistresses and love slaves, etc.), lies, deceptions, deceit and perhaps even some mob-style hits, downright illegal abuse of power and worst of all abandonment of our dedicated military and embassy people in Benghazi.


  7. The supreme court once again has gotten it all wrong with citizen united. One simple fact is this, people are free speech, get it! People it is very simple and you do not have to go to law school to know that. Corporations and unions and money is not free speech, it can not be there’s a sum to all that money and corporate greed.Freedom of speech is left to the person and there is no finance and money involved. Freedom of speech is the right to express your statement with or without money and your statement is valid and has a lot of weight. I am ashamed of the justices for not using common sense in this case that is all that is required. My name is Howard Gadsden a descendent of Christopher gadsden and George Washington our founding fathers, they would take the right side with the FEC, knowing with the voters they were right. Bernie sanders is right the free speech belongs to the people, that is america constitution. God bless America.

  8. Nate Horn

    The provisions allowing the existence of dark money may seem to favor foreign and sinister big money donors but if that turns out to be the case, then Democrats and the Left have no one but themselves to blame. It has become common knowledge and very unfortunate that the Left recognizes no moral restraints to their political activities; i.e. ‘The ends justify the means’. Vindictive and malevolent Left-wing organizations have used these donor lists to attack donors personally, politically, socially, financially and even physically in their shameless, despicable and un-American attempts to squash the free expression of political speech so as to unfairly favor ‘their’ side. Hence, the names of donors must be kept secret and protected under the 1st amendment. That’s what happens when you observe no moral code except your own egotistical imperative to win at all costs. Evil naturally stems from evil.


  9. If u truly love this county u would not be supporting Trump and the party trying to smear the FBI or Muller who is an honorable decent honest man. Trump is an egotistical self centered lying ass He has his allies doing the dirty work. The idea that the Justice Dept and FBI are part of a conspiracy against Trump is absurd The rt leaning Rep will rue the day they started these secret meetings. I hope the American people are smarter Thant’s believe such garbage. MayReump has been caught in his lies. The USA is not his private business. Stand up for the middle class and working poor. Do not let him stop this investigation or fire Muller. Remember Nixon and Trump is worst


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *