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A response to a recent critique of our fact-check about Citizens United
Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson December 27, 2018

In a column published Dec. 21, 2018, former Democratic official and Washington Post contributing columnist Ronald A. Klain, criticized a PolitiFact fact-check from Jan. 27, 2010 as having been "wrongly" decided.

He was referring to a Mostly False we gave to then-President Barack Obama when he criticized the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in his State of the Union address. Obama said, "Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations – to spend without limit in our elections."

We should note that at PolitiFact, we decide on ratings based on what was known to the speaker at the time, and nine years is a long time for new developments to come to light.

In fact, we stated this at the time in our fact-check:

"The legal experts we spoke to after Obama's radio address said that the president was overstating the immediate impact of the opinion. They said Obama was correct that the ruling could open the door to foreign companies spending on American campaigns, given the general direction of the majority's opinion. But because the majority justices didn't actually strike down the existing barriers on foreign companies -- in fact, they explicitly wrote that it fell beyond the boundaries of their decision -- our experts agreed that Obama erred by suggesting that the issue is settled law. Until test cases proceed and further rulings are handed down, Obama's claim about foreign campaign spending is a reasonable interpretation, and nothing more."

In other words, the picture painted by the legal experts we interviewed was one of significant uncertainty, in contrast to the dire situation Obama outlined. That -- combined with a focus on the "immediate" impact of the law, which Klain acknowledged -- suggests that our ruling was simply urging against jumping to conclusions.

On top of that, Klain muddies the waters by mixing overseas spending on troll farms and buying social media ads with the forms of spending controlled by Citizens United in the United States. Remember, the court’s decision focused on the right of American corporations to use their money to shape elections. Klain acknowledges that the justices explicitly put foreign entities in a separate legal category.

Given what was known at the time, we disagree that we were "wrong" in our conclusion nine years ago.


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A response to a recent critique of our fact-check about Citizens United