This month marks the ten-year anniversary of one of the most despised and misunderstood Supreme Court cases: Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
I love Citizens United. It stands as perhaps the most important First Amendment decision of the last decade. Yet it’s come to symbolize the illicit marriage between money and power, while what actually happened in the case is largely an afterthought. I remember encountering an enraged signature-gatherer outside a Trader Joe’s a few years ago who was engaged in one of the many campaigns to amend the Constitution to put an end to Citizens United. I thought he might have a coronary when I told him that it was one of my favorite Supreme Court decisions. I deeply regret not asking him if he could rehearse for me the facts of the case. Maybe he would’ve surprised me.
So what did Citizens United actually say? The law at issue banned corporations from using general treasury funds for electioneering, with civil and criminal penalties for corporations that spent money to speak on pressing political issues of the day. The Supreme Court said that a small-time political organization (that happened to be incorporated), Citizens United, could not be banned from publishing a film critical of a presidential candidate. It’s hard to find speech of a higher order of significance than that.
Citizens United held that government cannot ban political expenditures just because people choose to speak through the corporate form. This is a classic example of an old rule–government cannot censor speech based on the identity of the speaker.
Much of the fury over Citizens United is premised on a guttural abhorrence for the corporation. But corporations are just groups of people who have chosen to organize through a particular structure. And most don’t realize that the law at issue in Citizens United also banned unions from using general treasury funds for electioneering communications.
Much of the popular criticism of the case that I’ve seen seems to believe that Citizens United was the first case to establish that corporations had First Amendment rights. It wasn’t. In fact, not even the dissenters in the case would’ve held that corporations lack such rights. That was an uncontroversial and settled matter. And it should be obvious as to why. If corporations don’t have First Amendment rights, then the New York Times doesn’t have First Amendment rights, along with many other media organizations. (I’ve heard the excuse that freedom of the press would still protect media organizations independently, which is a misunderstanding of the freedom of the press, which doesn’t offer greater speech protections to media than non-media).
Citizens United gets a bad break, and I wish it a happy anniversary.