Supreme Court dismisses 'Hillary: The Movie' case

The issue – whether campaign-reform laws unconstitutionally restrict ads for political documentaries – now goes to a three-judge panel.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

With the 2008 presidential election on the horizon, the US Supreme Court on Monday summarily dismissed an appeal alleging that the free speech rights of the producers of a harshly critical political documentary were violated.

At issue was a request for a preliminary injunction by Citizens United, a conservative advocacy group that produced a documentary about Hillary Rodham Clinton called "Hillary: The Movie." The effort was patterned in part on Michael Moore's irreverent 2004 film about President Bush, "Fahrenheit 9/11."

The high court did not address the merits of the arguments. Instead, the case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction because the justices apparently felt the appeal for a preliminary injunction should have been filed first at the federal appeals court in Washington before arriving at the Supreme Court.

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The action does not end the case, but it makes it less likely that the Supreme Court will rule on these issues prior to the November election.

"It is our intention to get the case expeditiously resolved on the merits in the district court, and then if we are unsuccessful there, to appeal [to the US Supreme Court]," says James Bopp, a lawyer for Citizens United. He said government lawyers are dragging their feet to prevent the case from being resolved prior to the election.

"We are in the midst of a scheduling dispute as we speak," Mr. Bopp said.

The issues raised in the case are important because independent filmmakers on both the political left and right are seeking to play an increasingly influential role in the run-up to the 2008 elections.

Citizens United is at work on a second documentary, this one about Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

In December, the group filed suit in federal court challenging government restrictions placed on its film about Senator Clinton and advertisements about the film.

Under Federal Election Commission regulations, the film qualified as a form of electioneering communications because officials said it was aimed at advocating Clinton's defeat. As such, any advertisements about the film would have to include a political disclaimer and public disclosure of individuals paying for the ads, the FEC said.

The restrictions, established in the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform law, apply within 30 days of a primary election and 60 days of a general election.

Citizens United argued that even if "Hillary: The Movie" was a form of electioneering, the group's ads about the movie were not. They asked a three-judge panel to declare that the FEC's regulations were being applied in a way that rendered them an unconstitutional infringement of free speech rights. They asked the judges to impose a preliminary injunction preventing the FEC from enforcing the disputed provisions.

The three-judge panel refused. It ruled in January that "Hillary: The Movie" was the functional equivalent of express political advocacy.

"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," the panel ruled.

In addition, the three-judge panel declined to exempt the group's advertisements from campaign-finance regulations. The judges rejected the narrow reading of the McCain-Feingold law urged by lawyers for Citizens United.

"We know that the Supreme Court has not adopted that line as a ground for holding the disclosure and disclaimer provisions unconstitutional, and it is not for us to do so today," the judges said.

In its order on Monday dismissing the Citizens United appeal, the court said it lacked jurisdiction to take up the case. Justice Stephen Breyer noted that he would have affirmed the decision of the three-judge panel. But the rest of the court remained silent on the merits.

Instead, the action sends the case back to the three-judge panel for a trial.

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