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Was 'Hillary: The Movie' wrongly censored?

The Supreme Court hears a case Tuesday about rules governing campaign advocacy and finance.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 23, 2009

Silenced? David Bossie, leader of the conservative group Citizens United and producer of "Hillary: The Movie" in his Washington office.

Evan Vucci/AP

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Washington

The US Supreme Court takes up a closely watched case on Tuesday examining when a documentary film may violate election law and become an illegal form of campaign advocacy.

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The case centers on a Federal Election Commission (FEC) decision last year to block pay-per-view broadcasts of a 90-minute film called "Hillary: The Movie," which presents a negative assessment of Hillary Rodham Clinton's record as a senator and first lady. The film was produced by Citizens United, a Washington-based conservative group.

The justices are being asked to decide whether the FEC's action was unconstitutional government censorship that violated the documentary producers' free speech rights.

The case is seen as significant because it presents the high court an opportunity to either uphold or cut back on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which is aimed, in part, at preventing corporations and labor unions from flooding the public airwaves with last-minute political attack ads before elections.

The law doesn't apply just to traditional broadcast advertisements. It bars these groups from using their treasury funds to engage in a wider range of communicative efforts that the government believes might be aimed at influencing the outcome of a federal election.

The FEC is empowered by Congress to decide when a corporation or union crosses the line from acceptable public debate into illegal electioneering.

"Hillary: The Movie" was a prohibited form of electioneering subject to regulation under the campaign finance law, the FEC concluded. The law bars electioneering broadcasts by corporations or unions within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.

In addition, the FEC ruled that if Citizens United wanted to run broadcast advertisements promoting the documentary, it must first disclose the financial backers of the film.

The FEC said the disclosure rule applied even though the content of the ads did not amount to a form of electioneering.

Citizens United filed suit, arguing before a three-judge panel that the McCain-Feingold law was unconstitutional in the way it was being enforced by the FEC against its film.

The panel disagreed. It sided with the FEC, ruling that the documentary was the functional equivalent of electioneering and that Citizens United must disclose the documentary's financial supporters if it wanted to run broadcast ads during election season.

In their appeal to the Supreme Court, lawyers for Citizens United argue that the film is not the functional equivalent of electioneering

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