Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission | Study Guide

U.S. Supreme Court

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Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission | Quotes


The Court cannot resolve this case on a narrower ground without chilling political speech, speech that is central to the meaning and purpose of the First Amendment.

Justice Anthony Kennedy

A key to Kennedy's analysis is the idea that the FEC has the right to block the Citizens United documentary under the law. However, that means the law has the effect of "chilling political speech." That, to the majority, conflicts with the 1st Amendment.


These onerous restrictions thus function as the equivalent of prior restraint by giving the FEC power analogous to licensing laws implemented in 16th- and 17th-century England.

Justice Anthony Kennedy

Kennedy casts FEC regulations in the most unpleasant light possible. In allowing "prior restraint" (prohibition of speech before it happens) the BCRA restrictions constitute censorship, he argues. The Framers of the Constitution wrote the 1st Amendment to prevent censorship. The minority disagrees, seeing the BCRA's provisions as reasonable restrictions on powerful groups, not censorship.


Section 441b's prohibition on corporate independent expenditures is thus a ban on speech.

Justice Anthony Kennedy

Section 441B limits certain kinds of speech (based on the source of funds and time of communication) but does not ban it outright.


The Government may commit a constitutional wrong when by law it identifies certain preferred speakers.

Justice Anthony Kennedy

The majority holds that corporations and labor unions should not be singled out for exclusion from free speech. The court had considered the narrower question of whether or not the BCRA applied to Citizens United's film and ads. It decided that the law did apply, but it chose to go further and look at the constitutionality of the law itself.


The Court has recognized that First Amendment protection extends to corporations.

Justice Anthony Kennedy

To buttress the majority analysis, Kennedy marshals precedent. Kennedy, Stevens, and Roberts all cloak their positions in precedent—and charge the other side with ignoring or misinterpreting it.


Austin's antidistortion rationale would produce the dangerous, and unacceptable, consequence that Congress could ban political speech of media corporations.

Justice Anthony Kennedy

The majority paints the law as extreme with its claim that it could be used to extend to media companies. The argument is curious since Section 441b exempts these corporations from its provisions. Justice Stevens objects that this argument is a reach—the case does not involve a media corporation, so there's no reason to introduce them.


Stare decisis is neither an 'inexorable command,' ... nor 'a mechanical formula of adherence to the latest decision.'

Chief Justice John Roberts

In his concurring opinion Roberts focuses on the issue of stare decisis, throwing his weight as chief justice behind the majority's decision to overturn Austin. He buttresses his argument that stare decisis is not a hard rule by citing a string of cases that overturned earlier decisions—including some (like the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education, which declared racial segregation in public education unconstitutional) that the liberal justices would agree with.


When considering whether to reexamine a prior erroneous holding, we must balance the importance of having constitutional questions decided against the importance of having them decided right.

Chief Justice John Roberts

Roberts tries to put the question of stare decisis in plain terms. No reasonable person would make any choice other than deciding a case "right," as he says. Of course, this rhetoric raises the question of what the "right" decision is.


The Amendment is written in terms of 'speech,' not speakers. Its text offers no foothold for excluding any category of speaker.

Justice Antonin Scalia

Scalia reinforces the majority's position that the 1st Amendment applies to corporations. The amendment states "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech." It does not protect particular speakers, but speech more broadly.


The real issue in this case concerns how, not if, the appellant may finance its electioneering.

Justice John Paul Stevens

Stevens opens his dissent with an argument for addressing the case on narrow grounds. His point is that Citizens United had the opportunity to exercise its 1st Amendment speech rights by funding the film through its political action committee. Given that, he says, the majority errs in taking the case as far as it does.


The conceit that corporations must be treated identically to natural persons in the political sphere is not only inaccurate but also inadequate to justify the Court's disposition of this case.

Justice John Paul Stevens

Stevens objects to the idea that the 1st Amendment protects the right of corporations and other groups to "speak" with no limits or restrictions. He argues that organizations are not the same as actual human beings. It is reasonable and constitutional for elected bodies to create regulations around the ways organizations can engage in political speech and seek to influence the outcome of elections.


Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.

Justice John Paul Stevens

Stevens sees it as crucial that legislators have the ability to create limits on election spending. He particularly focuses on political spending by corporations, noting that there are "legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process." These include the fact that corporations might be managed by non-Americans. The financial power of corporations and other groups also means that without regulations their influence on elections can greatly outweigh that of average citizens.


The Court's ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation.

Justice John Paul Stevens

Stevens's dissent pushes back against the majority opinion that the BCRA's limits on political speech by corporation and unions violate the 1st Amendment guarantee to freedom of speech. Stevens argues that by striking down these regulations on spending to influence elections, the Supreme Court is weakening the nation's democracy. Unlimited spending by political organizations is a threat to the notion that voters—people, not well-funded groups—choose leaders and make decisions for the country via elections.


Essentially, five Justices were unhappy with the limited nature of the case before us, so they changed the case to give themselves an opportunity to change the law.

Justice John Paul Stevens

Stevens argues that the court should not have gone beyond the narrower decision of whether or not the BCRA should apply to Citizens United, its film, and its ads. His view is that the court is choosing to push past the particular question brought by the case, in order to make a major change in campaign finance law.


Political speech is entitled to robust protection under the First Amendment.

Justice Clarence Thomas

Thomas focuses his concurring opinion on the disclosure and disclaimer provisions of the BRCA, requiring that ads and other political communications state who had paid for them and whether they are authorized by a candidate. In pushing for "robust" protection of the 1st Amendment, Thomas argues for the strongest possible limits on government actions that could affect freedom of speech.

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