Overturning a century-old restriction, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that corporations could spend as much as they wanted to sway voters in federal elections.
In a landmark 5-4 decision, the court's conservative bloc said that corporations had the same right to free speech as individuals, and for that reason the government could not stop corporations from spending to help their favored candidates.
The ruling, which will presumably apply as well to labor unions and other organizations, is likely to have an effect on this year's congressional elections. Many political analysts and election-law experts predict that millions of extra dollars will flood into this fall's contests, much of it benefiting Republican candidates.
Republicans praised the decision as a victory for wide-open political speech, but Democrats slammed it as a win for big money.
President Obama called the ruling "a major victory for Big Oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans." He promised to seek "a forceful response to this decision" from Congress. Some Democrats talked about seeking legislation that would require corporations to get approval from their shareholders before spending money on politics.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of the subheadline on this report incorrectly said millions of extra dollars were expected to flow to Republican candidates. Corporations and unions are still barred from giving money directly to the campaigns of federal candidates.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, said that the court had restored proper rights to corporations and unions. Previously, "the government was picking winners and losers," McConnell said.
Until Thursday, corporations and unions were barred from spending their treasury funds on broadcast ads, campaign workers or billboards that urge the election or defeat of a federal candidate.
The restriction dates to 1907, when President Theodore Roosevelt persuaded Congress to forbid corporations, railroads and national banks from putting money into federal races. After World War II, Congress extended the ban to labor unions. More recently, the McCain-Feingold Act in 2002 added an extra limit on corporate and union-funded broadcast ads in the month before an election. Such ads were prohibited if they even mentioned a candidate running for office.
Thursday's decision swept away all of these restrictions.
"The government may not suppress political speech on the basis of the speaker's corporate identity," said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion. While the case of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission dealt only with corporations, the ruling will probably also free unions to spend as they wish.
Two significant prohibitions were left standing. Corporations and unions cannot give money directly to the campaigns of federal candidates, or to political parties. And the court affirmed the requirement that sponsors of political ads disclose who paid for them. Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented on these points.
The dissenters included the three Democratic appointees: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. They joined a 90-page dissenting opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens, who was appointed by President Ford, a Republican. Stevens, who will turn 90 in April, spoke in a halting voice as he read part of his dissent in the courtroom Thursday.
He called the decision "a radical change in the law." He predicted that the ruling would "cripple the ability of ordinary citizens, Congress and the states to adopt even limited measures to protect against corporate domination of the electoral process."
The decision displayed a deep division of opinion on the court about the meaning of the 1st Amendment and the freedom of speech.
The majority said that the Constitution broadly protected discussion and debate on politics, regardless of who was paying for the speech.
Stevens and the dissenters said that the majority was ignoring the long-understood rule that the government could limit election money from corporations, unions and others, such as foreign governments.
"Under today's decision, multinational corporations controlled by foreign governments" would have the same rights as Americans to spend money to tilt U.S. elections, Stevens said.
For critics of the campaign funding laws, the Citizens United case was an acorn that grew into an oak.
It began when Hillary Rodham Clinton, then a New York senator, said that she was running for president. David Bossie, a longtime Clinton critic, set up Citizens United as a nonprofit corporation, and produced a DVD called "Hillary: The Movie," an attack on her as vicious and untrustworthy.
Bossie lost a suit against the Federal Election Commission, which was charged with enforcing the McCain-Feingold Act. A lower court had said that the planned broadcast of the film was prohibited because it was an electioneering communication aimed at voters within 30 days of a presidential primary. Bossie appealed, citing the 1st Amendment.
When his case first reached the Supreme Court, the conservative justices voiced alarm that the government could restrict a movie, or perhaps a book, that criticized a candidate simply because it was paid for with corporate money. In September, they heard the case for a second time to broadly consider the issue of corporate-funded election ads.
Chief Justice Roberts said he was convinced that a broad free-speech ruling was required. Otherwise, it "would allow censorship not only of television and radio broadcasts, but of pamphlets, posters, the Internet and virtually any other medium that corporations and unions might find useful in expressing their views on matters of public concern."