Justices to Consider Whether Movie Violates Campaign Finance Law

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Supreme Court yesterday accepted the latest challenge to the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, agreeing to consider whether the makers of a movie critical of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) have to disclose who donated to the project and whether the government can ban the film from cable television.

The dispute over "Hillary: The Movie" could lead to a further erosion of the controversial 2002 law, which has been attacked by conservatives as an infringement on free speech. Although the high court has upheld the law's core provisions, it has struck down one part and weakened another in two recent decisions.

The latest case focuses on the law's restrictions on the kinds of television and radio ads that corporations and unions can finance in the days before an election. The Supreme Court last year substantially weakened those restrictions, saying they apply only if the ad urges people to vote for or against a specific candidate.

Citizens United, the conservative group that produced the Clinton movie, dropped plans to air it on cable television because it feared the Federal Election Commission would apply the ban on direct advocacy for a candidate.

The group filed a lawsuit challenging whether the ban applies to a full-length movie. Citizens United is also challenging a related provision of McCain-Feingold that says when corporations or unions are allowed to finance ads, they must disclose who contributed to the project and include a disclaimer in the ad.

A three-judge federal panel in the District ruled against Citizens United this year, declining to overturn the disclosure and disclaimer provisions and saying the Clinton movie did in fact urge people to vote against her.

James Bopp Jr., a lawyer for Citizens United, praised the Supreme Court's decision to take the case and said that it "indicates that the court considers disclosure rights as an important issue that could very well undermine First Amendment rights."

Fred Wertheimer, who heads the campaign finance watchdog group Democracy 21, said that the lower-court decision was correct and that his group "is taking these cases one at a time." He pointed out that what many consider the most important part of McCain-Feingold -- its ban on "soft money," or unlimited and unregulated campaign contributions from individuals, corporations and labor unions to federal candidates and national political parties -- remains in place.

Spokesmen for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did not return telephone calls yesterday. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) declined to comment through a spokesman.

The legislation, known formally as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, infuriated conservative Republicans, including some key supporters of McCain's presidential run this year, mainly because of the ban on soft money.

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