Supreme Court Issues Opinion in Citizens United v. FEC

Today, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Citizens United v. FEC. Most notably, this opinion removes the legal prohibition on “independent expenditures” by corporations, nonprofits, and labor unions, while retaining the long-standing legal ban on corporations using treasury funds to make direct contributions to federal candidates and party committees.

The court, in a 5-4 opinion authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, ruled that the First Amendment protects corporations, nonprofits, and labor unions the same as individuals, in terms of the ability to spend money to influence campaigns. As such, it allows these entities to fund independent media communications, including radio, television, internet, and mail pieces, expressly advocating the election or defeat of specific candidates. The sponsorship of such communications must be disclosed.

The decision does not impact the prohibition on direct contributions from corporations or labor organizations to candidates, or the use of Political Action Committees (PACs) to make federal campaign contributions, nor does it otherwise impact the “soft money” limitations of the McCain- Feingold Act. These issues were not challenged by Citizens United, and were not the subject of this opinion.

Democratic leaders have indicated that Congress may explore avenues for limiting portions of this decision. Thus, corporations and associations should look for possible changes in the coming months.