1. What is Citizens United?

    It’s been nearly three years since the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, but the controversy continues (See for example Big Sky, Big Money, which aired October 30, 2012 on PBS Frontline). 

    What was the ruling, exactly? From law firm Mintz Levin:

    “In a landmark 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court overturned a federal ban on corporate and union spending on political advertisements. The Citizens United v. FEC case allows corporations and labor unions to use unlimited general treasury funds to directly support or oppose candidates for federal office. Until now, corporations and unions could only spend political money through their Political Action Committees (PACs) to fund issue ads.”

    The decision generated significant attention (much of it negative), as David Silverman of law firm Davis Wright Tremaine explains:

    “…the Supreme Court found that the prohibition on such corporate expenditures violated the First Amendment right of speech belonging to corporations and unions. This decision was followed by a firestorm of critical comments, including those of President Obama in [his 2010] State of the Union address. The fear among many was that the money of big corporations would overwhelm the political messages of others who are less able to afford advertising time and that those corporations would therefore have a disproportional voice in future elections.”

    In plain English? Critics of the ruling felt that unlimited spending could allow corporations to overwhelm other voices in political contests. 

    This summer, the high court justices were given an opportunity to revise their Citizens United decision. They did not, ruling unconstitutional a Montana law barring corporate funding from state electoral contests because it violated the First Amendment. From King & Spalding:

    “[T]he justices aligned in the same manner as in Citizens United and struck down the Montana law by a 5-4 vote, explaining that ‘the question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law. There can be no serious doubt that it does. … Montana’s arguments … were already rejected in Citizens United, or fail to meaningfully distinguish that case.’”

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    Where does all this leave elections, free speech, and political donations? Here’s one take, from political activist Lawrence Lessig:

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    The updates:

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    Further reading:

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Notes

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