A look at the Citizen United Decision Eight Years Later
In the run up to the 2008 United States Presidential Election, a group called Citizens United wanted to broadcast a film titled ‘Hillary: The Movie’. They also wanted to advertise the broadcasting of the movie on major television channels. Preexisting laws barred Citizens United from broadcasting the movie as it violated many established practices, one of which was the prohibition of corporations participating in any electioneering communications. While corporations, private or publicly held, labor unions and all kinds of associations can freely donate to any political party or candidate of their choice, they cannot directly participate in electioneering communications or sponsored campaigns that would advocate the victory or defeat of any candidate in the fray. Such communications are restricted during the sixty days leading to the election and for a period of thirty days until the primaries.
Hillary Clinton was pitted against Barack Obama in the primaries. The movie was to be aired during the thirty days leading to the primary and hence Citizens United could not go ahead with their planned or intended broadcast. They filed a petition at the D.C. district court and it eventually went up to the Supreme Court as it involved constitutional rights. The Citizens United decision was essentially about free speech and upholding the freedom of expression. Prohibiting ordinary citizens or corporations from expressing their views, even if they are at a crucial juncture as the days leading up to a primary or the election, would be a direct violation of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled by a majority of five to four that enabled associations or organizations and individuals, for profit and nonprofit groups to participate in electioneering communications or campaigns.
The landmark ruling has had many ripple effects over the years. The entire business of politics has undergone a sea change as a direct impact of the ruling. The decision effectively allowed companies to spend as much money as they wanted on political activities if the funds were not directly donated to a candidate or a party. The floodgates opened, and innumerable political action committees have been created in the last eight years. These are often partisan initiatives but there are nonpartisan groups as well. The more troubling impact has been on dark money. Many corporations have allegedly started using funds that are not disclosed or completely accounted for to finance such political activities.
Candidates are now capable of raising much more funds, either directly or by routing them to fund specific communications. This has led to a sharp increase in spending before and during elections. In eight years, outside spending for Senate races have almost tripled. It is not a surprise that outside groups are the primary financers for such spending. When the Supreme Court struck down or reversed, either wholly or partly, the existing laws that prevented Citizens United from broadcasting the movie, the objective was to uphold free speech and expression, including political messages and opinions. But the highest court of the land ended up promoting partisan financing and unbalanced electioneering communications, which has been the reality post the decision.