Justices roll back campaign spending limits in landmark case (Jan. 21, 2010)

A Supreme Court divided along ideological lines today struck down several key provisions of landmark campaign finance legislation, which held that corporations can be prohibited from using money from their general treasuries to pay for campaign ads.

The case centered on whether a federal campaign finance law prohibited a conservative interest group from broadcasting and promoting a movie critical of Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton during the presidential primaries.

The Washington, D.C.-based group Citizens United intended to release its film, “Hillary: The Movie,” to theaters and for store sales on DVD during the 2008 presidential primary season. It did not go forward with plans to put out the movie in TV-on-demand access on cable TV, because it feared the FEC would apply the ad ban to it.

The group seeks challenged the federal “electioneering communications” disclosure requirements in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act as applied to its film. The law prohibits corporations and nonprofits from airing broadcast ads, which refer to a federal candidate 30 days before a primary election.

Using the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC, which exempted issue advocacy from the electioneering communications prohibition, Citizens United argued that the ads should be exempt as constitutionally protected for their discussion of issues.

In January, a three-judge panel on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rejected Citizens United’s motion for a preliminary injunction, and in July, the court granted the Federal Election Commission’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in McConnell v. FEC, upholding the BCRA’s disclosure requirements even if a particular radio or TV ad would not be banned under that law.

On Jan. 21, 2010, a divided Supreme Court removed limits on independent expenditures that are not coordinated with candidates' campaigns. The 5-4 majority also struck down part of the 2003 McCain-Feingold law that barred union- and corporate-paid issue ads in the closing days of election campaigns.

The ruling leaves in place a prohibition on direct contributions to candidates from corporations and unions.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority while Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a 90-page dissent joined by the Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Question presented: Whether federal campaign finance laws apply to a critical film about Sen. Hillary Clinton intended to be shown in theaters and on-demand to cable subscribers.

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