Citizens United v. FEC (2010)

IRAC Summary: Citizens United v. FEC

Issue: Whether certain provisions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) that restrict corporations from making independent expenditures for electioneering communications violate the First Amendment.

Rule: The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from making laws abridging the freedom of speech. Previous case law has established that political speech is highly protected, and the government must have a compelling interest to regulate it, subject to strict scrutiny.

Application: The Supreme Court examined whether the governmental interests, such as preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption, justified the BCRA’s restrictions on corporate-funded electioneering communications. The Court found that the BCRA’s provisions were overbroad and that independent expenditures by corporations did not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption, thereby failing to meet the strict scrutiny standard.

Conclusion: The Supreme Court held that the BCRA’s restrictions on corporate independent expenditures are unconstitutional under the First Amendment, as they infringe on the freedom of speech. The Court overruled Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and partially overruled McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, thus allowing corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on direct advocacy for or against candidates.

Detailed IRAC Outline of Citizens United v. FEC


The primary legal issue was whether Sections 203 of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA), which prohibited corporations (including nonprofit corporations) and unions from using their general treasury funds to make independent expenditures for speech that is an “electioneering communication” or for speech that expressly advocates the election or defeat of a candidate, violated the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.


The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees freedom of speech. The Supreme Court applies strict scrutiny to laws that impose restrictions on political speech based on its content. Such laws must be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. The Court has recognized the government’s interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or its appearance in campaign finance regulation. However, the Court has also maintained that political speech should not be unduly burdened.


  1. Context and Provisions of the BCRA:
    • The BCRA sought to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption by limiting the influence of wealthy corporations on elections through independent expenditures.
    • The Act prohibited certain types of advocacy close to an election, intending to regulate “electioneering communications” that could influence the electorate.
  2. Citizens United’s Challenge:
    • Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit organization, produced a film critical of then-Senator Hillary Clinton and sought to distribute it during the 2008 primary elections.
    • The organization argued that the BCRA’s limitations on its ability to show the film and advertise it violated its First Amendment rights.
  3. Supreme Court’s Analysis:
    • The Court determined that the BCRA’s restrictions on independent corporate expenditures constituted a ban on speech.
    • The majority rejected the argument that corporate speech could be banned to prevent corruption, stating that independent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption.
    • The Court distinguished between direct contributions to candidates, which could be limited due to corruption concerns, and independent expenditures, which lack the same direct relationship.
    • The Court held that the First Amendment does not allow prohibitions on speech based on the identity of the speaker, including corporations.
    • Furthermore, the Court found the disclosure requirements under BCRA section 201 as constitutional and not burdensome to free speech.


The Supreme Court concluded that the BCRA’s restrictions on independent corporate expenditures with respect to electioneering communications were unconstitutional. The decision effectively permitted corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds on electioneering communications and independent expenditures. The ruling maintained that the government could not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker’s corporate identity.

Post-Decision Discussion

The Citizens United ruling dramatically changed the landscape of political campaign financing in the United States. It led to the rise of Super PACs (Political Action Committees) and a surge in the amount of independent political spending. The decision remains controversial for its implications on democratic processes and the influence of money in politics. Critics argue it has led to increased corporate influence and decreased electoral competitiveness, while supporters contend it has enhanced free speech by allowing for a broader range of political discourse.

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