Citizens United v FEC: Political Financing Goes Dark?

Table of Contents

Citizens United v FEC government

From Katie Moum via Unsplash

What is Citizens United?

Citizens United (short for Citizens United v Federal Election Commission) refers to a 2010 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case whose decision invalidated major sections of long-standing campaign finance laws

The Court ruled 5-to-4 in favor of the nonprofit corporation Citizens United, declaring that laws prohibiting corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds for independent electioneering communications (typically, political advertising) violate free speech protections under the First Amendment. Perhaps even more notably, the decision enabled corporations, unions, and other groups to spend on elections without limits. The Court upheld the reporting and disclaimer requirements for independent expenditures and electioneering communications. 

Opinions expectedly clashed. 

Attorney Floyd Abrams hailed the ruling as a “triumph for free speech.”

President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address a week after the decision, commented “the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests–including foreign corporations–to spend without limit in our elections. Well, I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities. They should be decided by the American people…”

The Zero Theft Movement is dedicated to eliminating the rigged parts of the U.S. economy in order for the healthy, ethical parts to thrive. The Citizens United ruling has debatably allowed wealthy individuals and groups to have undue influence in elections and other political processes.

Megacorporations and their lobbyists could be heavily influencing regulation and legislation. Protect our politics and economy by joining the Zero Theft Movement.

Leading up to Citizens United

Leading up to the Democratic Party’s 2008 Presidential primary elections, the nonprofit Citizens United decided to release a documentary film about then-Senator and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

hillary the movie

Movie poster for Hillary: The Movie

From Dooling

Property of Citizens United

According to an official Court appeal, “Hillary [the documentary film] mentions Senator Clinton by name and depicts interviews with political commentators and other persons, most of them quite critical of Senator Clinton. Hillary was released in theaters and on DVD, but Citizens United wanted to increase distribution by making it available through video-on-demand.” 

The appeal further claims that the nonprofit advertised the film with three advertisements and planned to release the film within 30 days of the 2008 primary elections. This was, before Citizens United v FEC, a violation of the law.


The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1970, bolstered by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, outlawed corporations and other groups from using their general treasury funds for an electioneering communication. 

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) defines electioneering communication as “any broadcast, cable or satellite communication that refers to a clearly identified federal candidate, is publicly distributed within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election and is targeted to the relevant electorate.” (italics added by ZTM)

Aware of these restrictions, Citizens United sought declaratory and injunctive relief against the FEC in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, arguing: 

(1) the prohibition of corporate electioneering communications at 2 U.S.C. §441b was unconstitutional as applied to the film

(2) Disclosure and disclaimer requirements were unconstitutional as applied to the film and the three ads for the movie

The District Court denied Citizens United a preliminary injunction and instead granted the Commission’s motion for summary judgment. The Supreme Court noted probable jurisdiction in the case.

Citizens United Explained

Citizens United v FEC ultimately comes down to the two arguments listed above, and the Supreme Court thus provided two separate rulings. 

On corporate/union free speech

Citizens United v FEC ruling 1

From Oyez

As mentioned in the introduction of this article, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United 5-to-4. The major point of contention was whether free speech protections for individuals should extend to corporations.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy penned the majority opinion, arguing that the First Amendment protects the right to free speech, including cases where a corporation acts as the speaker. 

He wrote, “If the First Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” Kennedy further claimed that distinguishing between media and other corporations proves impossible. Thus, using that line of reasoning, the Justice contended that the law as it was would have allowed Congress to restrict political speech across media (newspapers, books, blogs, etc.). 

The dissenting opinion, presented by Justice John Paul Stevens, argued that the framers of the Constitution guaranteed free speech to “individual Americans, not corporations,” and raised concerns that the Court’s decision would “undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation.”


In the wake of the Citizens United ruling, organizations looking to reverse the decision emerged. Move to Amend, one of the more successful examples of these organizations, has proposed its We the People Amendment, which was introduced to Congress in 2019.

On disclosure and disclaimer requirements

Decision for federal election commission

From Oyez (linked under the previous image)

Despite the favorable free-speech ruling, the Supreme Court’s majority opinion sided with the FEC 5-to-4, arguing that BCRA’s disclosure and disclaimer requirements do not violate the First Amendment. At least, as the law pertained to Citizen United’s documentary. 

The Court believed the BCRA’s disclosure and disclaimer requirements on political spending would be enough to prevent corruption despite the limitless spending by wealthy donors and corporations. The majority opinion argued that with the unprecedented access to information via the Internet, the public should be able to know from where the funding for political advertising comes. This access would enable citizens to detect whether any given official prioritizes moneyed interests over public interests.

The infamous Big Dig, one of the biggest public works projects in U.S. history, started in the early 90s and was supposed to finish in 1998, with a total price tag of $2.56 billion ($7.4 billion adjusted for inflation as of 2020). The project ended in 2007, costing $14.8 billion ($25 billion adjusted for inflation as of 2020). That’s more than five times the original estimate. Was this just one big waste of money? 

The Aftermath of Citizens United: Dark Money & Super PACs

The aftermath of Citizens United proved telling, as corporations, nonprofits, and other groups could now theoretically spend unlimited funds on political campaigns. But the disclosure and disclaimer requirements would at least preserve transparency, right? 

Well, perhaps not. What the Supreme Court had failed to recognize were the loopholes in disclosure and disclaimer requirements that allowed for dark money and super PACs.

Dark Money

Dark money refers to any election funding that comes from an anonymous source. While campaign finance laws prohibit dark money from certain organizations, a select few do not have to disclose from where their contributions originate. 

These include:

  • Politically active nonprofits (nonprofits, trade associations, and unions) have no legal obligation to disclose the identities of donors even if contributions go to influencing elections. Those that opt not to report their funding sources would be considered dark money organizations

citizens united v federal election commmission dark money spending


  • Nonprofits, individuals, and corporations can work around disclosure requirements by donating to super PACs (more on them later) through shell companies. Super PACs, while they do not have contribution limits, must disclose the identity of all their donors. Therefore, donors can contribute as much as they want while still remaining anonymous. 

Cross-partisan political reform group Issue One estimates nearly $1 billion in election-related dark money expenditures from the 2010 Citizens United ruling to September 2019. By definition, dark money involves secrecy, so no one can have an exact estimate. 

The other concern that Obama raised and has repeatedly emerged is that foreign powers can covertly meddle with U.S. elections by contributing dark money. Many will likely recall when Special Counsel Robert Muller investigated Russian interference during the 2016 Presidential elections.

Super PACs

Political action committees (PACs) refer to organizations that raise and spend money for campaigns, either in support or opposition of political candidates, legislation, etc. Although PACs can donate directly to a candidate’s campaign, they have collection and contribution limits.

The Citizens United ruling created a precedent for the 2010 case v FEC. A federal appeals court ruled that outside groups could accept limitless contributions from any entity (individual, corporation, union, etc.) permitted that they do not give the money directly to candidates.

This opened the doors for super PACs, organizations unbound by collection and spending limits. On the other hand, they must disclose their donors; but we’ve already discussed the dangerous combination of dark money and super PACs. 

The Center for Responsive Politics reported that 2,276 super PACs operated in 2020, raising $3.43 billion and spending $2.13 billion. The organization has a list of the top disclosed donors. 

Beyond Citizens United v FEC

In 2018, the University of Maryland and nonpartisan research group Voice of the People conducted a joint survey to gauge public sentiment on the Citizens United v FEC ruling and election financing. 75% of respondents (including 66% of Republicans and 85% of Democrats) supported a constitutional amendment to reverse the Citizens United ruling.

So, how can we go about creating that reform that American citizens want to see? 

We at the Zero Theft Movement, along with our growing community, work together to calculate the best estimate for the monetary costs of corruption in the U.S. Corporate, political, and everything in between.

We have built a safe and independent platform where you and your fellow citizens work together to investigate and debate potentially rigged areas across the economy. Through blockchain voting, the way to make all your work permanent, public, and unchangeable, you decide whether (1) theft is or isn’t occurring in a specific area of the economy, and (2) how much is being stolen or possibly saved. Through direct democracy, we can collectively decide where the problem areas are and start working on addressing them systematically. 

The ZTM community knows that many businesses, including some corporations, act ethically. We are trying to hold the bad actors accountable. The corrupt corporations, lobbyists, and government officials. That way, good people and businesses can properly thrive and enjoy the piece of the pie we’re all due.

Standard Disclaimer

The Zero Theft Movement does not have any interest in partisan politics/competition or attacking/defending one side. We seek to eradicate theft from the U.S economy. In other words, how the wealthy and powerful rig the system to steal money from us, the everyday citizen. We need to collectively fight against crony capitalism in order for us to all profit from an ethical economy.   

Terms like ‘steal,’ ‘theft,’ and ‘crime’ will frequently appear throughout the article. Zero Theft will NOT adhere strictly to the legal definitions of these terms (since congress sells out). We have broadly and openly defined terms like ‘steal’ and ‘theft’ to refer to the rigged economy and other debated unethical acts that can cause citizens to lose out on money they deserve to keep.  

The public has spoken! See how much the rigged economy is ripping off from you…

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Commitment to nonpartisanship

The rigged layer causes all of us to suffer, regardless of our political allegiances. If we wish to eliminate rigged economy theft, we have to set aside our differences and band together against crony capitalists and corrupt officials. 

Beyond Citizens United v FEC

An educated public is an empowered public. 

We regularly publish educational articles on, just like this one on Citizens United v FEC. They teach you all about the rigged layer of the economy in short, digestible pieces.