Corporate Political Speech: Citizens United, Corporate Personhood

Explore the legal foundations, implications, and ongoing controversies of corporate political speech and corporate personhood in the wake of the landmark *Citizens United v. FEC* decision.


The intersection of corporate political speech and corporate personhood has been a contentious issue in American jurisprudence. The landmark Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) significantly altered the landscape of political campaign finance, sparking debates about the role of corporations in democratic processes. This guide explores the legal foundations, implications, and ongoing controversies surrounding corporate political speech and corporate personhood.

Historical Background

Early Corporate Personhood

The concept of corporate personhood dates back to the early 19th century. The U.S. Supreme Court case Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819) established that corporations have certain rights under the Constitution. This decision laid the groundwork for treating corporations as "persons" under the law, allowing them to enter contracts, sue, and be sued.

Evolution of Corporate Rights

Over the years, the scope of corporate rights expanded. In Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886), the Supreme Court recognized that corporations are entitled to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. This case is often cited as the foundation for corporate personhood, although the decision itself did not explicitly address the issue.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission

Case Background

Citizens United v. FEC (2010) is a pivotal case in the context of corporate political speech. Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit organization, sought to air a film critical of then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and to advertise the film during television broadcasts. The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) of 2002, also known as the McCain-Feingold Act, prohibited corporations and unions from using their general treasury funds for "electioneering communications" within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.

Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that the BCRA's restrictions on independent expenditures by corporations and unions violated the First Amendment. The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, held that political speech is indispensable to a democracy, and this is no less true because the speech comes from a corporation.

Key Points of the Decision

  1. First Amendment Protections: The Court emphasized that the First Amendment does not allow prohibitions of speech based on the identity of the speaker, whether it be an individual or a corporation.
  2. Independent Expenditures: The decision distinguished between independent expenditures and direct contributions to candidates, maintaining that independent expenditures do not pose the same risk of corruption.
  3. Disclosure Requirements: While striking down expenditure limits, the Court upheld the BCRA's disclosure requirements, arguing that transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions.

Official Resources

Implications of Citizens United

Impact on Campaign Finance

The Citizens United decision led to a significant increase in political spending by corporations and unions. Super PACs (Political Action Committees) emerged, allowing unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations, and unions to finance independent political activities.

Criticisms and Support


  1. Influence of Money in Politics: Critics argue that the decision has led to an outsized influence of wealthy corporations and individuals in elections, undermining the principle of political equality.
  2. Risk of Corruption: There are concerns that unlimited independent expenditures can lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption, as elected officials may feel indebted to their financial backers.


  1. Free Speech: Proponents assert that the decision protects free speech rights, allowing diverse voices to participate in political discourse.
  2. Transparency: Supporters highlight that the decision upheld disclosure requirements, promoting transparency in political spending.

Legislative Responses

In response to Citizens United, various legislative efforts have been made to amend the Constitution or pass new laws to regulate campaign finance. For example, Representative Pramila Jayapal introduced a constitutional amendment aimed at reversing the decision and restoring the ability of Congress and states to regulate campaign finance.

Corporate Personhood

The legal doctrine of corporate personhood grants corporations certain legal rights and responsibilities similar to those of individuals. This concept has evolved through various court decisions and legislative actions.

Key Court Decisions

  1. Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819): Established that corporations have the right to enter contracts and be protected from state interference.
  2. Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad (1886): Recognized that corporations are entitled to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.
  3. Citizens United v. FEC (2010): Affirmed that corporations have First Amendment rights to engage in political speech.

Controversies and Debates

The concept of corporate personhood remains controversial. Critics argue that granting corporations the same rights as individuals can lead to abuses of power and undermine democratic processes. Supporters contend that corporate personhood is essential for the functioning of modern economies, allowing corporations to operate efficiently and contribute to economic growth.

Official Resources

Future Directions

Potential Reforms

The ongoing debate over corporate political speech and corporate personhood has led to calls for various reforms, including:

  1. Constitutional Amendments: Proposals to amend the Constitution to clarify the extent of corporate rights and regulate campaign finance.
  2. Legislative Changes: Efforts to pass new laws that address the influence of money in politics and enhance transparency in political spending.
  3. Judicial Review: Future Supreme Court decisions may further interpret and refine the legal principles established in Citizens United and related cases.

Public Opinion and Advocacy

Public opinion on corporate political speech and corporate personhood is divided. Advocacy groups on both sides of the issue continue to mobilize support and influence policy decisions. Organizations like Move to Amend advocate for ending corporate personhood and limiting corporate influence in politics.


The Citizens United decision and the concept of corporate personhood have profoundly impacted American political and legal landscapes. Understanding the historical context, legal foundations, and ongoing debates is essential for navigating the complexities of corporate political speech. As the legal and political environment continues to evolve, the balance between protecting free speech and ensuring fair democratic processes remains a critical challenge.


  1. Citizens United v. FEC - Federal Election Commission
  2. Citizens United Explained - Brennan Center for Justice
  3. Supreme Court Opinion - FCC
  4. Jayapal Introduces Constitutional Amendment -
  5. Corporate Personhood - Washington State Legislature
  6. The History of Corporate Personhood - Vermont Legislature
  7. Move to Amend - Minnesota Legislature
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Von Wooding

Von Wooding

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