High court rejects anti-Clinton movie case


March 24, 2008

By Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court has rejected a conservative group's legal fight to air commercials promoting a movie critical of Sen. Hillary Clinton.

The case, rejected on jurisdictional grounds, was appealed after a federal District Court refused to issue a preliminary injunction clearing the way for the promotions.

At issue was whether broadcast ads promoting the 90-minute documentary "Hillary: The Movie" are subject to strict campaign finance laws on political advocacy, or would be considered a constitutionally protected form of commercial speech.

Citizens United, a Washington-based advocacy organization, had urged the justices to accept its appeal on an expedited basis this spring, in time for the ads to have an impact on the election season.

Clinton is in a tight race for the Democratic presidential nomination with Sen. Barack Obama.

The appeal was of a decision earlier this year by a special three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court in Washington. The decision meant the group -- if it now chooses to air any broadcast ads -- must indicate by name its sponsorship and disclose its political donors.

The three-judge District Court panel rejected the group's arguments that the documentary is more akin to news or information programs like PBS' "Nova" or CBS' "60 Minutes."

" 'The Movie' is susceptible of no other interpretation than to inform the electorate that Senator Clinton is unfit for office, that the United States would be a dangerous place in a President Hillary world, and that viewers should vote against her," wrote the judges in their ruling.

The decision cited the 2002 McCain-Feingold law that bans broadcast "electioneering communication" by corporations, unions and advocacy groups that run close to elections and primaries, and that identify candidates by name or image.

The law also requires an on-screen notice of the group financing such ads, as well as public disclosure of all donors to the sponsoring organizations.

Federal Election Commission lawyers had urged the courts to subject the ads to the disclosure law, arguing voters would be "unable to know who's funding the ads" otherwise.

And the Justice Department said the Supreme Courthad no authority to accept the case at this stage, contending that a federal appeals court in Washington should first tackle it.

But Citizens United's attorney argued their free speech rights were being violated, and they deserved a mandatory, direct appeal to the Supreme Court.

The justices apparently agreed with the Justice Department, noting in their brief order that the appeal was "dismissed for want of jurisdiction." The case now goes back to the three-judge District Court panel for final resolution.

"I'm surprised," James Bopp told CNN shortly after the high court made its decision. He said the group will "continue to do movies, including one on [Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack] Obama. And of course will want to market them. We will try to expeditiously resolve the case at district court. Hope springs eternal."

Clinton is is locked in tough primary fight with Obama for the Democratic nomination for president.

Citizens United wanted to run the promotional ads in important primary states this election year. The movie is already available on DVD and will soon be shown in about nine theaters, according to a public relations firm for filmmaker David Bossie, who heads Citizens United. Ads for the movie are also on the Internet, which is not subject to federal regulation.

Bossie has produced several conservative documentaries, including a rebuttal to Michael Moore's anti-Bush film "Fahrenheit 9/11."

The ads can be viewed online at www.hillarythemovie.com

The case is Citizens United v. FEC (07-953).