Analysis: Citizens United Led to More Speech, Better Democracy

Ten years later, the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling stands as a major First Amendment victory that improved the health of our democracy

January 16, 2020   •  By IFS Staff   •  
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Alexandria, VA – The Institute for Free Speech released an analysis today of the effects of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The analysis highlights seven key outcomes of the ruling over the decade since it was handed down. “Citizens United After Ten Years: More Speech, Better Democracy” shows that the decision increased speech about elections, facilitated rapid political change, and secured fundamental First Amendment rights.

“The Supreme Court got it right ten years ago. Citizens United led to more speech about elections, allowing Americans to educate and motivate their fellow citizens. The result has been more diversity and more change in government,” said Institute for Free Speech President David Keating.

“At the time of the decision, critics claimed Citizens United would let wealthy and powerful interests control elections,” said IFS Research Director Scott Blackburn, who authored the analysis. “In the decade since, that prediction simply has not come to pass. In fact, there is good evidence that the reverse is true. Political outsiders, new candidates, and challengers have benefited the most from Citizens United.”

The findings include:

    1. Since Citizens United, Politics Is More Diverse and Political Change Is Rapid. From Donald Trump to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, political outsiders and newcomers have risen to new heights. In four of five election cycles since Citizens United, either the White House or a chamber of Congress changed hands.
    2. Incumbents and Challengers Have Both Benefited From Super PAC Support – but the Support Helps Challengers More. Elections since 2010 have injected new blood into Washington. The five election cycles since Citizens United saw an average of 79 freshmen members of Congress. The five cycles prior to the decision saw just 55.
    3. For-Profit Corporations Are Not Big Spenders in Campaigns. Corporate political spending continues to be dwarfed by spending from other sources. In the four full election cycles since the decision, for-profit corporations have accounted for roughly 1% of spending from all sources.
    4. Money Still Can’t “Buy” an Election. Candidates cannot win on Election Day simply by blanketing the airwaves with advertising. Many big-spending candidates have lost since 2010 – from big presidential campaigns to small congressional races. Self-funding candidates offer the clearest test of whether money can “buy” votes. The record says no.
    5. Most Campaign Spending Still Comes From Limited Contributions by Individuals to Candidates. Organizations that can raise unlimited amounts account for only a minority of political spending. Giving to super PACs has varied from 12% to 26% of total contributions over the four full election cycles since Citizens United.
    6. The Government Cannot Ban Political Books or Movies. The Court’s ruling secured the right of companies like Netflix and Amazon to stream political documentaries during election season and the right of publishers to release books that discuss candidates. The speech at issue in Citizens United was a political documentary about then-Democratic primary candidate Hillary Clinton.
    7. There is More Speech About Candidates Now Than Ever Before. Citizens United allowed Americans to innovate new ways of organizing and speaking to promote their shared ideas. Research shows that campaign spending promotes voter knowledge and engagement.

To read the analysis, click here.

About the Institute for Free Speech

The Institute for Free Speech is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that promotes and defends the First Amendment rights to freely speak, assemble, publish, and petition the government. Originally known as the Center for Competitive Politics, it was founded in 2005 by Bradley A. Smith, a former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission. The Institute is the nation’s largest organization dedicated solely to protecting First Amendment political rights.

IFS Staff

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