In January, 2008 James Bopp, a lawyer from Indiana, was literally laughed out of court. He had appeared before a federal three judge panel to argue that Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit, should be allowed to air Hillary: The Movie on TV throughout the Democratic Presidential primaries. Citizens United had created the film to demonstrate that Hillary Clinton was a merciless political schemer and European socialist. The film also featured Kathleen Willey who made accusations of sexual harassment Bill Clinton as well as claiming that Hillary devised a plot to kill her cat.
The Federal Election Commission denied Citizens United permission to air the film during primaries because it would amount to a campaign advertisement without knowing who had paid for it. Bopp argued that the film was no different from 60 minutes and its creators were protected by the First Amendment. After making this point, Judge Royce Lamberth laughed at the comparison to 60 minutes. Two years later the Supreme Court reversed Judge Lamberth’s arguments wiping out 100 years of campaign financing law precedent. The judgment was based on a 1976 court decision that stated campaign spending was free speech, which is protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court extended first amendment rights to corporations because corporations are considered persons for constitutional purposes. The Supreme Court Justices arrived at the conclusion that preventing corporations from spending money to defeat or support candidates was unconstitutional.
Citizens United vs. FEC was the result of many years of work by James Bopp to erode the country’s campaign finance regulations via the use of obscure cases that he was not expected to win. Bopp did not stop after his landmark victory. He is still pursuing cases that aim to remove all facets of campaign finance regulation.
The repercussions of Citizens United have gone beyond protection of free speech in books and movies. The case has paved the way for corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money without any public disclosure. Bopp’s work has been funded by individuals and organizations such as the National Rifle Association, The RNC and Betsy Devos.
The Citizens United case has inspired activists and political action committees to raise money for removing big money out of politics. End Citizens United, is one of such political action groups. During the first quarter of 2017 it raised $4 million and it plans to raise $35 million before the 2018 midterms. That would be a significant increase from the $25 million it raised during the 2016 election cycle, its first election cycle. Over 100,000 individuals contributed to the PAC, and significant portion were first time contributors. According to End Citizen United’s executive director and president, the aim is to elect leaders who will advocate for campaign finance reform in Congress.
Visit endcitizensunited.org for more details about this group.