& the Citizens United Case
By Marieke van Woerkom
their associations with the term "democracy"
up with a working definition for democracy
other forms of government besides democracy by discussing a
Winston Churchill quote
and discuss in small groups an animated short on the history
of the Supreme Court case of Citizens United versus FEC
homework, research the liberal and conservative perspectives
on Citizens United versus FEC
the next lesson, participate in a dialogue with one half of
students presenting the liberal perspective and the other half
presenting the conservative perspective
& Emotional Skills:
the idea of democracy
including the communication skills of active listening and assertiveness
researching the liberal perspective:
researching the conservative perspective:
Democracy Web (13 minutes)
the word "democracy" at the center of the board or a
piece of chart paper and circle it. Ask students to volunteer
their free associations with the word. Chart their free associations
around the circled word. Draw lines from the circled word to the
charted associations, forming a web. If some associations are
obviously linked, connect them with lines. Take responses for
several minutes and/or while attention remains high.
ask students to share any observations they have about the web.
Ask if anyone can come up with a definition for "democracy."
Consider using the Merriam-Webster.com definition below to compare
to the definition your students come up with. Discuss.
of DEMOCRACY (from Merriam-Webster.com)
1 a : government by the people; especially : rule of the
majority b : a government in which the supreme power is vested
in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through
a system of representation usually involving periodically held
2 : a political unit that has a democratic government
3 capitalized : the principles and policies of the Democratic
party in the United States <from emancipation Republicanism
to New Deal Democracy - C. M. Roberts>
4 : the common people especially when constituting the
source of political authority
5 : the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions
Share (12 minutes)
Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister in the mid 20th century,
once said, "Democracy is the worst form of government except
for all those others that have been tried."
students to discuss this quote in pairs, by considering the following
are their thoughts about this quote?
other forms of government may Winston Churchill have been thinking
do you think Winston Churchill is as ambivalent about democracy
as this quote seems to indicate?
are your thoughts about the state of democracy in the U.S.,
considering what you know about the current presidential election
and other recent elections?
in the large group, ask students to share some of the things discussed
in their pairs.
Story of Citizens United (23 minutes)
Introduce the next part of your lesson by saying something about
the U.S. Constitution:
in 1787, the American Constitution, is often viewed as the world's
first formal blueprint for a modern democracy. Although the Constitution
did not yet extend voting rights to the majority of Americans,
it nevertheless pointed the way towards a fully democratic future.
the very beginning, some people argued that the American Constitution
did not provide enough safeguards for the rights of the individual.
In response, the inaugural congress invited James Madison to draft
a series of amendments, ten of which were adopted. These first
ten amendments came to be known collectively as the Bill of Rights.
The Bill was ratified in 1791. The prevailing theme was the protection
of the individual against oppressive authority.
theme has continued to resonate in American politics ever since
and is being raised again as an important issue in this year's
students to watch Annie Leonard's Clip "The Story of Citizen's
United v. FEC" at: http://www.storyofstuff.org/movies-all/story-of-citizens-united-v-fec/
time allows, have your students watch the clip once all the way
through, then watch it again a second time* to take notes before
having a small group or full classroom discussion using some or
all of these questions:
are their thoughts about the clip?
does Annie Leonard say about the crisis of democracy we are
does Leonard say about the history (and current role) of corporations?
to Leonard , how do people and corporations differ? How do their
notes that corporations are run by people. Why then do corporations
operate so differently from people?
role does the government have to play in this?
does Leonard say is supposed to write the laws in a democracy?
has been the corporations' key strategy for sneaking into our
democracy according to Leonard ?
does this relate to the Supreme Court case of Citizens United
versus FEC? What was the Supreme Court ruling in this case?
What was their rationale? What have been the effects?
you think corporations should be treated the same as people?
Why/why not? What does Leonard say has been the consequence
of treating corporations as people?
democracy is in trouble. But according to Leonard we can save
it. What does she suggest we do? What are your thoughts about
if time is short, ask students to watch the clip once only
Ask some volunteers to share one thing they learned today.
In the video students just watched, Annie Leonard makes the argument
that the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United is gutting our
democracy. In response she says that "It's easy to get angry,
but it's time we got smart and realized that the heart of our
problem is not that we have bad lawmakers, we have a democracy
smart is about gaining a better understanding and awareness of
the issues so that we know how to better respond and take action.
For homework, students will be asked to research some of the arguments
Leonard makes from both the liberal perspective (which Leonard
shares) and from a more conservative perspective.
Liptak's January 21, 2010, New York Times article "Justices,
5-4, Reject Corporate Spending Limit" provides arguments
from both the more liberal and conservative wings of the Supreme
court, citing the different justices making their arguments both
for and against Citizens United.
all students to read Liptak's article for homework.
assign half of your students to further research the liberal perspective
on how Citizens United has affected democracy in the U.S. The
other half of students will research the conservative perspective.
Explain that students are researching these perspectives so that
they can participate in a role play. In the role play, they'll
be asked to argue for or against the idea that our democracy is
in crisis as a result of the Citizens United ruling.
you reconvene in class next time, set up a fish bowl with an inner
circle of 10 chairs and an outer circle of the remaining chairs
set up around the inner 10 chairs. Invite 5 students who researched
the liberal perspective and 5 students who researched the conservative
perspective to seat themselves in the inner circle. The rest of
students will start by listening and observing(from the outside
circle) the dialogue of those in the inner circle.
time allows, you can start out by having the two groups (liberal
and conservative) come together to prepare their opening statement
as a group. If there is no time, proceed to the next step.
two students from opposing perspectives to make an opening argument
as to why our democracy is in crisis, or not, as a result of Citizens
United. Next open up the dialogue to all 10 students. Instruct
those "on the outside" to listen only. If they have
something to contribute, they can tap one of the students in the
inner circle on the shoulder to exchange seats quietly. That is,
the student in the outer circle moves to the inner circle to engage
in the dialogue. This way all students are engaged and all have
an opportunity to share their perspective, despite the fact that
only 10 students are part of the dialogue at a given time.
Readings for "Liberal" Group:
students who will be researching the more liberal perspective
to read the excerpts below:
Supreme Court thought non-candidate spending would be "independent"
and therefore non-corrupting. This proposition not only beggars
belief, it led to the rise of SuperPACs, which are allowed to
raise and spend unlimited amounts because they don't contribute
directly to candidates and are purportedly independent. These
Super PACs, more than 250 of which registered between their creation
in 2010 and the end of 2011, have super-charged the influence
of the biggest corporations and wealthiest individuals. The Supreme
Court still recognizes that contributions to candidates can be
corrupting, which is why direct contributions can be limited;
if outside groups coordinate spending with a candidate it is treated
like a direct contribution and can also be limited. Rules exist
to prevent coordination between candidates and outside groups.
But these rules have been reduced to such swiss cheese that they
barely maintain the pretense of independence. That is how we've
ended up with candidate SuperPACs - founded by former campaign
associates, funded by family and friends, explicitly supporting
one candidate, who is allowed to fundraise for these groups himself.
These candidate SuperPACs are making a mockery of contribution
limits by running figure eights around and through the coordination
rules; the idea that they are independent in any real sense is
The Court turned its back on the reality recognized by political
actors for a century: concentrated wealth has a distorting effect
on democracy, therefore, winners in the economic marketplace should
not be allowed to dominate the political marketplace. Before Citizens
United, the Supreme Court recognized in Austin v Michigan Chamber
of Commerce that the government had a compelling interest in protecting
our democracy from "the corrosive and distorting effects
of immense aggregations of wealth that are accumulated with the
help of the corporate form and that have little or no correlation
to the public's support for the corporation's political ideas."
The Court that decided Austin was rightly worried that corporate
wealth can dominate the political process and "unfairly influence
elections." Citizens United disavowed this understanding.
The public supports the prior consensus of the Court. Shortly
after the Citizens United decision, 78% of poll respondents agreed
that the amount that corporations are allowed to spend in order
to influence campaigns should be limited, and 70% believed that
corporations have too much control over elections already. It's
hard to escape the conclusion that Government of and by big money
supporters can only be for big money supporters."
Both excerpts are from "10
Ways Citizens United Endangers Democracy" by Liz
resources for this group of students to use are:
Homework Readings for "Conservative" Group:
students who will be researching the more conservative perspective
to read the excerpts below:
political ads sponsored by nondescript groups obviously existed
before Citizens United. Did the average American ever know that
the true source of the infamous and morally depraved Willie Horton
ad that helped torpedo Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign
was sponsored by a PAC, Americans for Bush? Did that group ever
receive appropriate scrutiny at the time? Beyond that, did typical
voters really care all that much?
the 2000 election, the billionaire Wyly brothers' mysterious 527
group, "Republicans for Clean Air," ran millions of
dollars in ads in key primary states touting then candidate George
W. Bush's claimed exemplary environmental record. These questionable
ads were cited by some as instrumental in helping Bush defeat
his main primary challenger, John McCain. Do you remember the
Wyly brothers' 527 group? Me neither. 527 groups were in most
significant ways left wholly unregulated and, with the exception
of the Swift Boaters in 2004, received relatively sparse media
seems dishonest to therefore hold Citizens United as the sole
harbinger for the monied takeover of political campaign spending-especially
since even before the decision came down about half of the states
did not have such restrictions on corporate spending in place.
What It has certainly done is to energize the debate over money
and politics. In this regard it has done the voting public a service,
leaving them better educated about the finance process and more
critical of political advertising.
equal importance, it has also exposed the critical need for much
greater transparency in the campaign finance process and greater
walls of separation between candidates and independent backers.
Citizens United has been good for campaign finance transparency
by Mark Caramanic, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
very idea that political speech in an open democracy can be "corrupting"
rests on fundamentally illiberal assumptions about individuals'
capacity for reasoned deliberation and self-government. The First
Amendment was designed to allow all speakers to put their messages
out into the public debate, be they rich or poor, vicious or virtuous.
The underlying principle is that over the long run, a society
of free individuals is best equipped to evaluate the merits of
political arguments for themselves, and that a distrustful government
cannot ban speech out of the worry that its citizens will be unduly
swayed by it. Rich individuals and talented polemicists have always
been permitted to put out quantities and qualities of speech that
may exert a disproportionate influence on society, but political
opponents and voters have always been trusted to evaluate these
speakers' arguments for themselves, respond with counter-arguments,
and ultimately make up their own minds about the truth of any
matter of controversy. Especially with the explosion of diverse
viewpoints and avenues of expression that have come from the Internet
media revolution, it simply defies common sense to think that
any corporation or union could ever hope to so overwhelm the political
debate as to prevent dissenting voices from being heard and reasonably
contemplated by the electorate. Of course, this freewheeling political
dialogue may be messy, imperfect, and prone to abuses, but the
First Amendment makes it constitutionally preferable to censorship
targeted at disfavored groups"
Citizens United by Anthony Dick in the National Review.
Other resources for this group of students to use are:
lesson was written for TeachableMoment.org by Marieke
van Woerkom. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: