x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Judges to rule on anti-Clinton film

The Supreme Court will decide whether a fiercely critical anti-Hillary Clinton movie is a political advertisement or a documentary.

David Bossie, leader of Citizens United and producer of Hillary: The Movie.
David Bossie, leader of Citizens United and producer of Hillary: The Movie.

WASHINGTON // A fiercely critical anti-Hillary Clinton movie, released during last year's presidential primary campaign by a conservative group, will get a new screening audience today: the judges of the highest US court. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case centring around whether Hillary: The Movie amounted to a political campaign advertisement, thus making it subject to campaign finance laws that limit when it can be advertised and aired and that require the names of donors to be disclosed. The movie was produced by Citizens United, a non-profit organisation based in Washington, very much with the anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, by the liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, in mind. It is equally, if not more, unflattering than Mr Moore's film: the 90-minute movie shows image after unbecoming image of Mrs Clinton, now the US secretary of state, during her years as first lady, senator and presidential hopeful while various commentators, journalists and politicians call her "venal", "deceitful", "sneaky" and "steeped in sleaze". In one of the commercials plugging the film, Dick Morris, a one-time top aide in the Clinton administration who fell out of favour with the Clintons, dubs her "the closest thing we have in America to a European socialist". The dispute over the film started when the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the independent regulatory agency that enforces campaign finance laws, ruled that it was a political advertisement, and thus subject to restrictions on corporate and union ads that mention specific candidates in the run-up to federal elections. Citizens United, however, which had intended to advertise the movie in battleground states during the 2008 Democratic primary, and make it available as an on-demand video on cable TV, said its movie was a documentary and nothing more. Therefore, argued David Bossie, the group's president, it could be advertised without restrictions and without publicising any disclaimer or giving up any donor list. Campaign finance law prohibits the broadcast of "electioneering communications" financed by corporations - including non-profits if they are using corporate funds, as Citizens United did - in the 30-day and 60-day period before primary and general elections, respectively. It also sets limits on how much money can be spent. In a Jan 2008 ruling, a three-judge panel of the US District Court for the District of Columbia agreed with the FEC, saying the movie indeed amounted to a political ad. "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 Clinton world, and that viewers should vote against her," one of the judges wrote. "The Movie is thus the functional equivalent of express advocacy." Now the Supreme Court will take up the matter in a case analysts say has potentially far-reaching implications for the way political speech is regulated. The justice department has filed a brief in the case agreeing with the US district court. But another group, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, is challenging that court's argument; to consider the movie a political advertisement, it says, could set a "dangerous" precedent for journalists who do similar work. "By criminalising the distribution of a long-form documentary film as if it were nothing more than a very long advertisement, the district court has created uncertainty about where the line between traditional news commentary and felonious advocacy lies," the group said in a brief. "All that is certain is that the line will depend on a subjective determination of the FEC."

"We take no position on the quality or the content of this particular documentary," Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the reporters committee, said in an interview. "But there is a long-standing tradition and practice in this country, dating back to George Washington, of journalists not only just reporting on the news but also taking a viewpoint on political issues and political issues. I can easily see if this decision goes the other way journalists who do long form pieces that have a viewpoint, sometime near an election, getting sucked into being punished for the content and the method of delivery." Mr Bossie is a somewhat controversial figure himself; he served, while Bill Clinton was president, as chief investigator for a Republican-controlled House of Representatives committee on government reform and oversight, and led several inquiries into the Clintons. His group has produced several other films, including ones on the "radical agenda" of the American Civil Liberties Union and the "hype effect" of Barack Obama, the US president. He reportedly is working on a movie disparaging the Obama administration's massive stimulus package; it is called "Stimulate This". eniedowski@thenational.ae