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USF Law Review Symposium Explores Citizens United

March 10, 2011

The University of San Francisco Law Review symposium “Democracy, Inc? Citizens United, Corporate Expenditures, and the Future of Campaign Finance Law” gathered campaign finance law experts and reformers Feb. 25 to discuss the landmark ruling Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and its effects.

In the Citizens United ruling, the United States Supreme Court struck down a provision of the McCain-Feingold Act that prohibited the broadcast or transmission of election communications paid for by corporations or labor unions before elections. The ruling established that the government cannot ban political spending in candidate elections by corporations, who the court ruled
have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited funds on political advertising.

“Citizens United raises profound issues about the relationship of our branches of government, the role of the corporation versus our citizenry, and the role of money in our electoral politics,” Dean Jeffrey Brand said. “I think it is fair to say that Citizens United embodies conflicting visions of America not seen since the court tackled Brown v. Board of Education 57 years ago.”

The symposium offered a variety of perspectives from both sides of the debate—those who view Citizens United as a First Amendment victory and those who perceive the ruling as a triumph for corporate interests. Speakers included Director of Political Reform at the Center for Governmental Studies Jessica Levinson, UC Los Angeles Professor Adam Winkler, and Tara Malloy, associate legal counsel at the Campaign Legal Center.

Keynote speaker James Bopp, who served as the plaintiff’s lead counsel in Citizens United until the case reached the Supreme Court, said that the U.S. Supreme Court ruling empowers the collective power of ordinary citizens.

“It may be convenient for the rich people to write a check to a group, and many of them do. If you say they can’t do that anymore, you don’t stop them—they can buy it themselves,” Bopp said. “But if you say the group can’t do any political activity then you stop every person of average means from participating—they have no other option. When you target corporations and labor unions with restrictions on speech you are targeting people of average means and you are benefiting the wealthy. It is always an advantage to be wealthy, but now you are making it more advantageous.”

Symposium panels explored the First Amendment rights of corporations after Citizens United, state judicial elections, legislative developments, and the rights of shareholders in corporate political expenditures. Professor Reza Dibadj, who served as faculty advisor of the symposium and moderated the panel on shareholders’ rights, argued that the First Amendment rights of shareholders have been largely ignored.

“My fundamental point is actually quite simple—that Citizens United in our jurisprudence is to a large extent ignoring First Amendment rights of shareholders,” Dibadj said. “I think we spend so much time debating the First Amendment rights of corporations and of unions that we’ve not focused sufficiently on shareholders.