CTS explains: Citizens United vs. FEC, a.k.a. ‘Citizens United’
Even the pros can sometimes use a refresher, so we are continuing our explainer series with a crash course on a term you’ve probably heard a lot about this election: Citizens United. Here’s why…
A nonprofit group called Citizens United wanted to distribute a (rather unflattering) 90-minute documentary called Hillary: The Movie using video on-demand. They also wanted to be able to advertise for the movie on cable and broadcast TV. The group was concerned that Hillary would be subject to bans on electioneering communications and independent expenditures funded by corporations.
After winding its way through lower courts, the case arrived before the Supreme Court. Originally, Citizens United (the group) was only looking for the answer “yes” to the following questions:
If a documentary targets a political candidate or issue, does it fall into the same category as a political ad?
If that documentary is available on-demand, should it be treated like an electioneering communication?
Can corporate money be used to fund that documentary?
Can advertisements for that documentary air on broadcast and cable television?
But those questions got a little out of hand.
The Citizens United ruling is one of two judicial decisions (the other is SpeechNow v. FEC, explainer on that case to come) that paved the way for super PACs — political groups that can accept corporate contributions and are allowed to spend as much as they want on independent expenditures to help elect or defeat a candidate. The only catch is that coordination between super PACs and candidates isn’t allowed.
Though the ruling has been controversial, there’s lots of precedent for it. And as we’ve reported, the government has been pretty consistent, if not always effective, in its attempts to limit the corrupting influence of money in politics.
If it sounds like things are about to get hairy, they are — almost. Lucky for you, we’re going to break some of those precedents down into a handy chart.
The original, memed-to-death image above is from Kevin Lamarque for Reuters, with text from us.