Minow Debate Series Addresses Whether Citizens United Has Undermined Democracy


Public Interest Alumni Events Faculty
A stage backlit in purple, with a moderator in the center and two debate participants on either side of the moderator. The powerpoint text at the back of the stage reads "Has Citizens United Undermined Democracy?"
Northwestern Pritzker School of Law hosts the latest installment of the Newt and Jo Minow Debate Series in Thorne Auditorium

On February 21, 2024, students, faculty, alumni, and guests filled Thorne Auditorium to observe the latest installment of the Newt and Jo Minow Debate Series at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.

The debate series, made possible by friends and colleagues of Newton N. Minow (JD ’50), honors Minow’s numerous contributions to public and civic life with debates that engage outside experts, Law School faculty, and students on important and timely legal topics. This year’s discussion, co-produced with the series Open to Debate, featured law experts addressing the question, “Has Citizens United Undermined Democracy?”

The 2010 landmark Citizens United Supreme Court decision ruled that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for political communications by corporations, including nonprofits, labor unions, and other associations. The decision changed the landscape of political spending in the country, giving rise to Super PACS and an increase in election campaign spending.

Those who support the decision argue it upholds free speech, allows diverse voices in the political arena, and broadens the range of discourse by enabling groups to express their views and support candidates or policies freely. Those against it argue that it allows a disproportionate influence from corporations and special interest groups and leaves ordinary citizens’ voices overshadowed by the financial resources of a few, eroding the principles of equality and fair representation.

With Open to Debate host John Donvan moderating, Vanderbilt University’s Francesca Procaccini and Stetson University’s Ciara Torres-Spellicsy argued in favor of the motion. Cahill, Gordon & Reindel’s Floyd Abrams and the Institute for Free Speech’s Eric Wang spoke against it.

Donvan dedicated the discussion to Minow, who died in 2023, noting Minow’s famous description of television programming in 1961 as a “vast wasteland” in advance of his advocacy for the development of satellite communications and children’s welfare, which led to the creation of public television. “The terrain of Newt’s life and career was so plentiful, so high quality. A father and a husband, an attorney and political advisor whose ideas and foresight significantly laid the groundwork for how we all connect today,” said Donvan. “Another contribution to the culture [was] his role in fostering the tradition of the presidential debates. Newt Minow cared about history; now he has his place in history. Newt, you are a friend to our program, so this one’s for you.”

A frame of two documents, a letter from Justice John Paul Stevens to Newt Minow on the left and an opinion article by Minow on the right.
A letter from Justice John Paul Stevens to Newt Minow is framed alongside Minow’s opinion article in the Law Bulletin, which influenced Stevens’ opinion in Nixon vs. Shrink Missouri Government PAC.

The subject of the evening’s debate was particularly fitting given Minow’s advocacy for campaign finance reform and his influence on earlier Supreme Court decisions regarding campaign finance. In 1999, Minow wrote an article in the Law Bulletin in which he referred to money a “canker on politics” and called for the Supreme Court to revisit campaign finance reform. He sent the article to Justice John Paul Stevens, who replied saying he already read it: “In fact, it was only after reading it that I decided to write briefly in the Nixon case.” Stevens wrote a concurring opinion in Nixon vs. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, which upheld campaign contribution limits.

The speakers provided opening statements, debated both sides of the issue, and then took questions from the audience. Before adjourning, Donvan introduced Newt Minow’s children Martha Minow, former dean of the Harvard Law School, and Nell Minow, an expert in corporate governance. He asked them about the importance of debate at the Law School.

Martha and Nell Minow speak on the debate series stage as debate participants look on in background.
Martha Minow (left) and Nell Minow, children of Newt Minow, take the stage at the close of the debate.

“My parents were big supporters of debates,” said Nell Minow. “They had us debate at our family dinners. They would say, ‘Nell, you take one side, Martha take the other side, and [our sister] Mary can be the judge.’”

Martha Minow noted that her parents met in college: “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Northwestern. What they believed is that most arguments occur because people don’t ask, ‘What do you mean, and how do you know?’ What would mean so much to them about this debate is how that was the focus. People really talked about, ‘What do you mean, how do you know?’ And they listened.”

Donvan thanked the Minows for their appearance and for sharing their father’s legacy. “I want to give a heartfelt thank you to Newt Minow, whose leadership and legacy we have to thank for these debates. And especially, I want to thank our debaters for approaching this whole thing with an open mind and for bringing to the table thoughtful disagreement.”