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Has Citizens United decision undermined democracy?

Minow Debate on Feb. 21 considers the landmark case about how corporations spend money on political campaigns
u.s supreme court
Since the 2010 landmark decision in Citizens United v. FEC, there have been questions about whether the decision has harmed the democratic process.

In a high-stakes presidential election year, the nonpartisan debate series Open to Debate (formerly known as Intelligence Squared U.S.) and the Newt and Jo Minow Debate Series at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law are taking a look at the U.S. Supreme Court case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which determined the first amendment prohibits the government from restricting corporations from spending money on political campaigns.

Since the 2010 landmark decision, there have been questions about whether the decision has harmed our democratic process. Those who support the decision argue it upholds free speech, allowing diverse voices in the political arena and broadens the range of discourse by enabling groups to freely express their views and support candidates or policies. Those against the decision argue that it allows a disproportionate influence from corporations and special interest groups and leaves the voices of ordinary citizens overshadowed by the financial resources of a few, eroding the principles of equality and fair representation.

Open to the public, the debate, “Has Citizens United Undermined Democracy?” will be presented in person and streamed live at 5 p.m. Feb. 21 in the Law School’s Thorne Auditorium.

Arguing yes will be Francesca Procaccini, assistant professor of law at Vanderbilt University Law School, and Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, professor of law at Stetson University.

Procaccini researches and writes about federal courts and constitutional law, particularly First Amendment law. She was an appellate attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, where she litigated civil rights cases in the U.S. Courts of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Torres-Spelliscy teaches on the First Amendment, corporate governance, business entities and constitutional law. Before joining Stetson, she was counsel in the Democracy Program of the Brennan Center for Justice providing guidance on the issues of money in politics and the judiciary to state and federal lawmakers.

Arguing no will be Floyd Abrams, senior counsel in Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP’s litigation practice group, and Eric Wang , partner at The Gober Group and a pro bono senior fellow at the Institute for Free Speech.

Abrams often is involved with cases on the First Amendment, intellectual property, public policy and regulatory issues. He represented The New York Times during the Pentagon Papers case, Judith Miller in the CIA leak grand jury investigation and Citizens United in Citizens United v. FEC, among other high-profile clients.

Wang’s practice focuses on federal and state campaign finance, lobbying, political nonprofits and government ethics laws. He has advised clients on the campaign finance laws in all 50 states and in many municipalities.

The Newt and Jo Minow Debate Series is presented in partnership with Open to Debate and hosted by Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.

The series is made possible by friends and colleagues of the late Newton N. Minow, a 1950 graduate of Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. Together they honored Minow’s numerous contributions to public and civic life by generously establishing an endowment to support a series of debates that engage outside experts, law school faculty and students on important and timely legal topics.

Appointed by President John F. Kennedy to the Federal Communications Commission in the early 1960s, Minow drafted legislation that expanded the broadcast spectrum and promoted the implementation of communication satellite technology in an effort to foster communication, democracy and innovation.

Minow also served as law clerk to the Honorable Fred M. Vinson, chief justice of the United States; assistant counsel to Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson; and chairman and director of the Public Broadcasting Service. He also co-chaired the 1976 and 1980 U.S. presidential debates. He was a partner at Sidley Austin from 1965 to 1991. 

Minow earned both his bachelor’s degree (1949) and his J.D. (1950) from the University. He joined the Northwestern Board of Trustees in 1975 and became a Life Trustee in 1987. Newt Minow died in May 2023 at the age of 97. Jo Minow passed away in February 2022.

Open to Debate is a nonpartisan, debate-driven media organization dedicated to bringing multiple viewpoints together for a constructive, balanced, respectful exchange of ideas.

For Journalists: view the news release for media contacts