The so-called Citizens United case began after Citizens United, a conservative non-profit organization, sought to air and advertise a film critical of then Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton shortly before the 2008 Democratic primary elections.
Advertising the film would have been a violation of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which prohibited any corporation, non-profit organization or labor union from making an "electioneering communication" within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of an election, or making any expenditure advocating the election or defeat of a candidate at any time.
In a majority opinion joined by four other justices, Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy held that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act's prohibition of all independent expenditures by corporations and unions violated the First Amendment's protection of free speech.
The Court overturned Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (1990), which had allowed different restrictions on speech-related spending based on corporate identity, as well as a portion of McConnell v. FEC (2003) that had restricted corporate spending on electioneering communications. The ruling effectively freed labor unions, trust funds, and corporations to spend money on electioneering communications and to directly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates.
In his dissenting opinion, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens declared that the Court's ruling represented "a rejection of the common sense of the American people, who have recognized a need to prevent corporations from undermining self government."
Senator Mitch McConnell commended the decision, arguing that it represented "an important step in the direction of restoring the First Amendment rights". By contrast, President Barack Obama stated that the decision "gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington".
The ruling represented a turning point on campaign finance, allowing unlimited election spending by corporations and labor unions and fueling the rise of Super PACs. These PACs are "super" in that they produce millions of dollars for a party or an individual candidate through undisclosed means.
Many believe the Citizen's United decision undermined the Constitution, defies common sense, and should be remedied with appropriate legislative action.