One year ago today, the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. It upheld the First Amendment rights of individuals acting through corporations and labor unions to participate in our political process, and it struck down an oppressive thicket of statutes restricting - and even criminalizing - their political speech.
The case arose in 2007, when Citizens United, a grass-roots membership organization, sought to broadcast a film critical of Hillary Clinton, then a candidate for president. The Federal Election Commission deemed the film too critical to be shown in the weeks before an election; if Citizens United had broadcast it, its officers would have been subject to prosecution and potential imprisonment for up to five years. The Supreme Court struck down this prohibition of corporate and labor union election-time speech about candidates as a violation of the First Amendment. To the court's majority, it was "stranger than fiction for our Government to make . . . political speech a crime."
Stranger still were the unwarranted attacks against the Supreme Court that followed. Most visibly, the president used his State of the Union address to accuse the court of having "reversed a century of law" and "open[ed] the floodgates for special interests - including foreign corporations - to spend without limit in our elections." That statement was astonishing because none of it was true: The oldest decision reversed by Citizens United was 20 years old, not 100, and foreign corporations are prohibited from participating in elections, just as they were before. As for "special interests," many had been spending at an equally furious rate, apparently unnoticed by the president, well before this ruling.
Still, the attacks continued: Sen. Charles Schumer accused the court of attempting to "predetermine the outcome of next November's elections," handing them to "Corporate America and other special interests." And when the November elections brought grim tidings to many Democratic officeholders, those candidates blamed not themselves nor their unpopular policies but the court. "Clearly the Citizens United decision decided this race," said a freshly defeated Rep. Dan Maffei. Sen. Arlen Specter went so far as to blame Citizens United not only for his rejection at the ballot box but also for "effectively undermining the basic democratic principle of the power of one person, one vote."
Serious charges, but as the justices wrote in Citizens United, "[r]hetoric ought not obscure reality." So what is the reality?
Without question, Citizens United has enabled citizen organizations (curiously and disparagingly labeled "outside groups") to assume a larger role in electoral politics. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, citizen groups spent $296.4 million in the 2010 election cycle - slightly less than the $301.7 million spent by such groups in 2008, but more than four times the $68.9 million spent by comparable organizations in the 2006 midterm elections.