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Background Essay Citizens United

By now most folks know that the U.S. Supreme Court did something that changed how money can be spent in elections and by whom, but what happened and why should you care?

The Citizens United ruling, released in January 2010, tossed out the corporate and union ban on making independent expenditures and financing electioneering communications. It gave corporations and unions the green light to spend unlimited sums on ads and other political tools, calling for the election or defeat of individual candidates.

In a nutshell, the high court’s 5-4 decision said that it is OK for corporations and labor unions to spend as much as they want to convince people to vote for or against a candidate.

The decision did not affect contributions. It is still illegal for companies and labor unions to give money directly to candidates for federal office. The court said that because these funds were not being spent in coordination with a campaign, they “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

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So if the decision was about spending, why has so much been written about contributions? Like seven and eight-figure donations from people like casino magnate and billionaire Sheldon Adelson who, with his family, has given about $40 million to so-called “super PACs,” formed in the wake of the decision?

For that, we need to look at another court case — v. FEC. The lower-court case used the Citizens United case as precedent when it said that limits on contributions to groups that make independent expenditures are unconstitutional.

And that’s what led to the creation of the super PACs, which act as shadow political parties. They accept unlimited donations from billionaires, corporations and unions and use it to buy advertising, most of it negative.

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The Supreme Court kept limits on disclosure in place, and super PACs are required to report regularly on who their donors are. The same can’t be said for “social welfare” groups and some other nonprofits, like business leagues.

These groups can function the same way as super PACs, so long as election activity is not their primary activity. But unlike the super PACs, nonprofits do not report who funds them. That’s disturbing to those who favor transparency in elections. An attempt by Congress to pass a law requiring disclosure was blocked by Republican lawmakers.

The Citizens United decision was surprising given the sensitivity regarding corporate and union money being used to influence a federal election. Congress first banned corporations from funding federal campaigns in 1907 with the Tillman Act. In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act extended the ban to labor unions. But the laws were weak and tough to enforce.










Assess whether the Supreme Court ruled correctly in

Citizens United v. F.E.C.

, 2010, in light of constitutionalprinciples including republican government andfreedom of speech.





Students will:


Understand the Founders’reasons for affordingpolitical speech the greatestprotection.


Apply principles of republicangovernment and freedomof speech to evaluate thedecision in

Citizens United v.F.E.C.,




Handout A: Agree or DisagreeHandout B:

Citizens United v. F.E.C.,

2010, Background EssayHandout C:

Citizens United v. F.E.C.,









Two 50-minute high school classes



CCE (9-12):



Era 3, Standard 3; Era 7,Standard 1; Era 10, Standard 1


Strands 2, 5, 6 and 10

Common Core (Grades 9-10):

9. Analyze seminal U.S.documents of historical and


Washington’s Farewell Address,the Gettysburg Address,Roosevelt’s Four Freedomsspeech, King’s “Letter fromBirmingham Jail”), including howthey address related themes andconcepts.

Common Core (Grades 11-12):

8. Delineate and evaluate thereasoning in seminal U.S. texts,including the application ofconstitutional principles and use


Supreme Court majority opinionsand dissents) and the premises,purposes, and arguments in


The Federalist, presidentialaddresses).9. Analyze seventeenth-,eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S.documents of historical


Independence, the Preambleto the Constitution, the Bill ofRights, and Lincoln’s SecondInaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, andrhetorical features.During his 2010 Stateof the Union address,President Barack Obamadid something very fewpresidents have done:he openly challenged aSupreme Court ruling infront of both chambers ofCongress and members ofthe Supreme Court of theUnited States. That ruling,

Citizens United v. F.E.C.


commentary on it,reignited passions on bothsides of a century-longdebate: to what extentdoes the First Amendmentprotect the variety ofways Americans associatewith one another andthe diverse ways we“speak, ” “assemble,” andparticipate in Americanpolitical life? It is thisspeech – political speech – that the Founders knewwas inseparable fromthe very concept of self-government.