What Is the Citizens United Ruling?

A Primer on the Landmark Court Case

Donald Trump speaking at a campaign event.

Gage Skidmore / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Citizens United is a nonprofit corporation and conservative advocacy group that successfully sued the Federal Election Commission in 2008, claiming its campaign finance rules represented unconstitutional restrictions on the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision ruled that the federal government cannot limit corporations — or, for that matter, unions, associations, or individuals — from spending money to influence the outcome of elections. The ruling led to the creation of super PACs.

“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,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority.

About Citizens United

Citizens United describes itself as a being dedicated to the goal of restoring government to U.S. citizens through education, advocacy, and grassroots organization.

“Citizens United seeks to reassert the traditional American values of limited government, freedom of enterprise, strong families, and national sovereignty and security. Citizens United's goal is to restore the founding fathers' vision of a free nation, guided by the honesty, common sense, and good will of its citizens,” it states on its website.

Origins of Citizens United Case

The Citizens United legal case stems from the group's intention to broadcast “Hillary: The Movie,” a documentary it produced that was critical of then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, who at the time was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. The film examined Clinton's record in the Senate and as the first lady to President Bill Clinton.

The FEC claimed the documentary represented "electioneering communications" as defined by the McCain-Feingold law, known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002. McCain-Feingold prohibited such communications by broadcast, cable, or satellite within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.

Citizens United challenged the decision but was turned away by the District Court for the District of Columbia. The group appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

The Decision

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in favor of Citizens United overruled two lower-court rulings.

The first was Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, a 1990 decision that upheld restrictions on corporate political spending. The second was McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, a 2003 decision that upheld the 2002 McCain-Feingold law banning “electioneering communications” paid for by corporations.

Voting with Kennedy in the majority were Chief Justice John G. Roberts and associate justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas. Dissenting were justices John P. Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor.

Kennedy, writing for the majority, opined "Governments are often hostile to speech, but under our law and our tradition it seems stranger than fiction for our Government to make this political speech a crime."

The four dissenting justices described the majority opinion as a "rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self-government since the founding, and who have fought against the distinctive corrupting potential of corporate electioneering since the days of Theodore Roosevelt."


President Barack Obama leveled perhaps the most vocal criticism of the Citizens United decision by directly taking on the Supreme Court, saying the five majority justices “handed a huge victory to the special interests and their lobbyists.”

Obama lashed out at the ruling in his 2010 State of the Union address.

"With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections," Obama said during his address to a joint session of Congress.

"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 president said. "And I'd urge Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to correct some of these problems."

In the 2012 presidential contest, however, Obama softened his stance on super PACs and encouraged his fundraisers to bring in contributions to a super PAC that was supporting his candidacy.

Support for the Ruling

David N. Bossie, the president of Citizens United, and Theodore B. Olson, who served as the group’s lead counsel against the FEC, described the ruling as striking a blow for freedom of political speech.

“In Citizens United, the court reminded us that when our government seeks ‘to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought,’” Bossie and Olson wrote in "The Washington Post" in January of 2011.

“The government argued in Citizens United that it could ban books advocating the election of a candidate if they were published by a corporation or labor union. Today, thanks to Citizens United, we may celebrate that the First Amendment confirms what our forefathers fought for: ‘the freedom to think for ourselves.’”


Bossie, David N. "How the Citizens United ruling freed political speech." Theodore B. Olson, The Washington Post, January 20, 2011.

Justice Kennedy. "Supreme Court of the United States Citizens United, Appellant v. Federal Election Commission." Legal Information Institute. Cornell University Law School, January 21, 2010. 

"Remarks by the President in State of the Union Address." The White House, January 27, 2010.

"Who We Are." Citizens United, 2019, Washington, D.C.

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Murse, Tom. "What Is the Citizens United Ruling?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-citizens-united-ruling-3367927. Murse, Tom. (2021, February 16). What Is the Citizens United Ruling? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-citizens-united-ruling-3367927 Murse, Tom. "What Is the Citizens United Ruling?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-citizens-united-ruling-3367927 (accessed June 6, 2023).