Twelve years ago today, the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission swept away a century of precedent that barred corporate money in our elections and opened the floodgates to corporations spending limitless sums of money to take over our elections. And lower federal courts have gone even further, prohibiting Congress from limiting contributions to political action committees, and enabling billionaires to buy election results by contributing millions of dollars to so-called super PACs.

Despite being radical, this ruling was not an aberration: it was part of a larger movement, starting in the 1976 opinion Buckley v. Valeo, to use the First Amendment to undermine democratic self-rule and prevent voters from setting reasonable limits on spending in elections. Before Citizens United, the court vacillated between expanding and contracting Buckley’s holding. But since 2010, the Court has gone in one direction: striking down laws limiting the total amount ultra-wealthy individuals and corporations spend, undermining public campaign funding laws, and recently even beginning to take aim at the bare-minimum disclosure laws that even tell us who’s spending on what.

But Free Speech For People is working hard to fight against these anti-democratic doctrines emanating from the Supreme Court. 

We’re advancing our groundbreaking model legislation to ban foreign-influenced corporations from participating in U.S elections. Part of the (flawed) reasoning in Citizens United was that corporations have speech rights because they are “associations of citizens.” But what about corporations with a significant number of foreign shareholders? As then-Judge (now Justice) Brett Kavanaugh explained in 2011, shortly after Citizens United, the public has a powerful interest in preventing foreign entities from spending any money at all in U.S. elections. If they can’t spend their own money in U.S. elections, then the corporations in which they are significant investors aren’t “associations of citizens” and shouldn’t be able to spend money to influence our elections either. Our legislation to ban corporate political spending by foreign-influenced corporations passed in Seattle in 2020, and just passed the New York State Senate last week; similar bills are pending in Congress and in states around the country.

For the long term, we continue to fight for the Free and Fair Elections Amendment. The surest way to undo the damage done to our democracy from Buckley to Citizens United is to amend our Constitution so that freedom of speech is for people, not corporations, and money is not treated as equal to speech. Our amendment sets limits on federal campaign contributions and spending; prohibits corporate spending in the political process; requires Congress to develop a system of public campaign financing for all federal candidates who qualify for the ballot; and allows the states to set reasonable limits on campaign contributions and spending in state and local elections. 

Our democracy faces a broad array of threats, including vote suppression, voter intimidation, election subversion, and lack of accountability for abuse of corporate and government power. The Citizens United anniversary reminds us that many of these stem, in part, from the antidemocratic distortions of big money in politics. At Free Speech For People, we’re committed to the promise of reclaiming our democracy, and we’ll keep fighting for it.