Political Speech

Citizens United v. FEC

Brief Details

William H. Mellor
Chairman and Founding General Counsel
William R. Maurer
Managing Attorney of the Washington Office
Original Court
U.S. Supreme Court
Current Court
U.S. Supreme Court
In a sweeping regulation of political speech, the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, known as McCain-Feingold, banned so-called “electioneering communications”—corporate or union-funded broadcast ads that mentioned the name of a federal candidate shortly before an election.  Using this law, the Federal Election Commission banned the nonprofit Citizens United from airing Hillary:  The Movie on cable TV and required the group to “name names” by disclosing to the government detailed personal information about the film’s backers if the group ran any television ads to promote the film. Citizens United, rather than remain silent, chose to challenge the FEC’s application of the law.  IJ in turn submitted two amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court to support the group.  In its first brief, IJ demonstrated how government-forced disclosure of political activity burdens citizen groups with needless red tape, chills speech and violates privacy while providing little if any benefits to voters.  In its second brief, submitted after the Supreme Court took the unusual step of ordering the parties to submit supplemental briefing, argues that the Court should return to first principles and overturn two previous decisions that gave the FEC the power to censor corporate-funded electoral advocacy, such as advertisements, films, and even books. On January 21, 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United and held that the government had no business dictating which groups may speak and which may not.  The majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy was a tour de force for the First Amendment.  After noting that “[s]peech restrictions based on the identity of the speaker are all too often simply a means to control content,” the Court went on to hold that
When Government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.
IJ has been at the forefront of defending this free-speech victory from those who have called it “activist,” that the decision will let “corporations buy elections” and that it is the worst opinion since Dred Scot.  And IJ’s work in one of its own cases, SpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission , has dramatically expanded the reach of the Court’s ruling and ensured that thousands of independent groups nationwide may speak freely.