Citizens United v Federal Election Commission
This case concerned a programme, Hilary, which had been paid for and produced by Citizens United and which was critical of then Senator Hilary Clinton. Citizens United intended to distribute Hilary via the video-on-demand distribution system which would have reduced the number of people who were able to see the programme. Citizens United sought an injunction preventing the Federal Election Commission from holding them in breach of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act 2002 (BCRA) which prohibited corporate expenditure on advertisement expressly advocating the election or defeat of a particular candidate.
The Supreme Court, in holding that this prohibition was contrary to the First Amendment guaranteeing the absence of restrictions on free speech, followed the well-established position that companies could benefit from the rights set out in the First Amendment and decided that: i) the BCRA created an outright prohibition on freedom of expression enforced by criminal penalties; ii) the prohibition was based on the identity of the speaker, that is, the corporation; iii) electioneering expenditure by corporations did not give rise to corruption because individuals also used revenues accrued in the economic marketplace to fund the free speech activities; iv) political speech 'was so ingrained' in the US culture that the prohibition was being circumvented. The Court found that, overall, the Governments interests in maintaining the prohibition did not justify the infringement on freedom of expression. Corporations were henceforth permitted to use their general revenues to campaign in favour of or against a particular candidate.
It is interesting to note that the Supreme Court also found that the still nascent video-on-demand distribution system was covered by the prohibition because it could be accessed by the 34.5 million cable subscribers. It thus passed the 50, 000 household threshold written into the relevant legislation.
Author Organisation: Supreme Court of the United States