Outrage Over Citizens United Has Jump-Started a Revolution

The ruling has poured billions of corporate dollars into our elections, but it has also helped inspire more Americans to push for campaign finance reform.

(Photo: Reuters)

Jan 21, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John Wellington Ennis is a filmmaker in Los Angeles. His production company Shoot First Inc. in Hollywood specializes in political messaging with a viral sensibility.

It’s hard to believe that Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the court case decision that has dramatically changed campaign spending, is already five years old. Plenty of politicians and activists have spoken out about the ruling, which has poured billions of dollars in dark money into our elections. As a filmmaker, turning the spotlight on the ability of special interests and corporations to spend without limit in our elections has become a personal mission of mine. That somehow seems appropriate because the Citizens United court case and decision started with a movie.

Back in 2008, there was a film called Hillary: The Movie that the conservative nonprofit group Citizens United wanted to advertise on television. The 90-minute documentary stars prominent conservative figures such as Newt Gingrich and Ann Coulter and characterizes Hillary Clinton in an overwhelmingly negative light. Citizens United wanted to show ads for Hillary on television within 30 days of the 2008 presidential primary in New Hampshire. However, it ran into trouble with the Federal Election Commission because somebody at Citizens United decided to make that expenditure through its 501(c)(4) instead of its sister PAC, which would have been legal.

(Photo: Pay 2 Play)

John Roberts, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, told the parties to reargue the case with much broader scope than the lawsuit before the court. It was an extraordinary deviation from how cases are adjudicated by the highest court of the land. That widening of the case was a surprise for the Federal Election Commission, and its lawyers unsuccessfully argued that a case about ads for a video-on-demand movie had nothing to do with whether corporations should have the right to spend unlimited amounts in elections.

It’s really thanks to Citizens United that people are getting involved in getting money out of politics. Sixteen states and hundreds of local municipalities across the nation have passed resolutions or legislation calling for an end to Citizens United. Whenever the clean money issue is on the ballot, it wins handily across party lines. That’s good news because politicians are fond of getting in front of parades that have already started. So we must all be that parade.

I first started shooting a documentary in 2006 about reforming our elections. At the time I wondered, how could I get people more concerned about the need for campaign finance reform? I knew it might sound like an abstract issue for a film, but after talking to numerous promising candidates across the swing state of Ohio, I realized that money in politics was blocking progress for everybody. Then the Citizens United decision came along, and suddenly people started to express more interest in what I was talking about.

That documentary became Pay 2 Play: Democracy’s High Stakes, a film I released last fall. It explores our campaign finance system, in which politicians reward their donors with even larger sums from the public treasury through contracts, tax cuts, and deregulation. Pay 2 Play is showing across the country Wednesday—on Citizens United's birthday—as part of a national screening day on college campuses.

The Pay 2 Play team is also working with such partners as Rock the Vote, Common Cause, and Move to Amend. Besides viewing parties, we are taking our message to the streets. In our film, we created a massive Monopoly board that reflected the pay-to-play system—Citizens United got a square, as did the Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council. That 45-foot board was unfurled on Wednesday afternoon in front of the New York Stock Exchange. In Los Angeles, that same board has been re-created with more than 40 poster-board protest signs, to be assembled outside L.A. City Hall at 4 p.m.

I wanted to be upbeat on the fifth anniversary of Citizens United because our greatest work is ahead of us, and staging a protest against it is the kind of diligence that would make America's founding fathers and mothers proud. The video below is a short excerpt from Pay 2 Play that gives a more in-depth explanation of how Citizens United came to be. Until it is overturned, for me, Jan. 21 will always be a rallying day for protest.