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Supreme Court's campaign finance ruling: just the facts

Questions and answers about the Supreme Court's ruling on campaign finance and how it will change America's elections.

By Staff writer, Staff writer / February 2, 2010

‘Face the Nation’: Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona told CBS’s Bob Schieffer that the Supreme Court’s ruling effectively ended the campaign finance reform he’d led. He predicted ‘an inundation of special-interest money into political campaigns.’

Chris Usher / Face the Nation / AP


On Jan. 21, the US Supreme Court announced a landmark decision establishing for the first time that corporations enjoy the same First Amendment free-speech rights as individuals.

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The 5-to-4 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has touched off dire predictions by campaign finance-reform advocates that campaigns for Congress and the presidency will soon be flooded with corporate dollars and influence.

Supporters of the decision say that the reformers' rhetoric is overblown and that the opinion reflects proper respect for free-speech principles.

Why are advocates of campaign finance reform so upset?

For nearly 40 years there has been a fundamental debate raging over how best to finance American political campaigns.

On one side, liberal reformers have sought to limit the influence of wealthy corporate interests by emphasizing the importance of maintaining a "level playing field." They have argued that corporations and labor unions could dominate the airwaves with slick and highly effective attack ads, leaving no time for the targeted candidates to respond. If American democracy is based on the principle of one person, one vote, they say, then corporations must be muzzled during political campaigns to prevent their amassed wealth from dominating and corrupting a political campaign.

Conservatives and libertarians, on the other hand, have countered that limiting the amount of money a corporation – or anyone – can spend to make their political point is censorship and a violation of the letter and spirit of the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech. Corporate power and influence aren't inherently corrupting, they say, as long as they're part of a vibrant debate within an open marketplace of ideas.

The debate most recently arose at the Supreme Court after the conservative advocacy group Citizens United, a corporation, was prevented from airing a 90-minute documentary critical of then-candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. The group wanted to air the film on pay-per-view cable television. The Federal Election Commission determined that the documentary, "Hillary: The Movie," was a form of electioneering that could be regulated under federal election laws. The FEC also ruled that advertisements about the film could be regulated, too. A panel of three federal judges upheld the FEC ruling. Citizens United then appealed to the Supreme Court.

High court decisions in 1990 and 2003 had strengthened the hand of those arguing for restrictions on corporations and for creation of a level campaign playing field. But other decisions since the 1970s advanced the idea that spending money in elections – even corporate money – can involve an expression of free speech.

What happened on Jan. 21 with the decision in Citizens United v. FEC is that five of the nine justices decided to erase the two key precedents that had laid the groundwork for reform focused on creating a level playing field. Those arguments have now been declared unconstitutional.