Despite the hyperbole surrounding Citizens United, the justices were actually debating a simple issue: Whether a movie critical of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton could be aired on pay-per-view television. Under the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, such activity was banned within 30 days of a primary election. The justices struck down this prohibition, ruling that “the First Amendment protects political speech.” Chief Justice John Roberts was even more blunt, arguing that such bans subvert “the vibrant public discourse that is at the foundation of our democracy.”
There was a time when most Americans agreed with this logic. The American Founding was partially triggered by the Stamp Act, which squelched speech by mandating that publications possess a stamp purchased from the British government. Following the Revolution and the ratification of the Constitution, the first Congress wisely passed the First Amendment to prevent politicians from banning speech that criticizes officeholders. Throughout American history, this constitutional guarantee of free speech has been the bulwark of the country’s experiment in self-government.
Yet this consensus disappeared following Citizens United. The Democratic Party’s leadership, fearing the electoral losses that ultimately came to pass, called for a crusade to undo the Supreme Court’s decision. Their holy war found its fullest expression in the demand for a constitutional amendment that would, in essence, repeal the First Amendment.