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Was 'Hillary: The Movie' wrongly censored?

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

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"Citizens United's documentary engages in precisely the political debate the First Amendment was written to protect," writes Theodore Olson in the group's brief to the high court.

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"The government's position is so far-reaching that it would logically extend to corporate or union use of a microphone, printing press, or the Internet to express opinions – or articulate facts – pertinent to a presidential candidate's fitness for office," he says.

Government lawyers counter that "Hillary: The Movie" is an extended political attack. "[The film's] unmistakable message is that Senator Clinton's character, beliefs, qualifications, and personal history make her unsuited to the office of the President of the United States," writes Edwin Kneedler of the solicitor general's office, in a brief filed on behalf of the FEC.

The government is also asking the high court to uphold FEC disclosure requirements triggered by promotional ads. Mr. Olson is asking the court to strike down the requirements.

He says the ads are aimed at generating interest in a documentary film, rather than trying to persuade voters to support or oppose a candidate.

Some financial backers may withhold support for a controversial project if they know their support will be publicly disclosed. Olson says that makes it more difficult for groups like Citizens United to produce films critical of powerful public figures.

Government lawyers present another perspective. "Disclosures of the sort here serve rather than undermine First Amendment interests by increasing the amount of information available to the public," Mr. Kneedler writes in the FEC's brief.

Some free-press advocates are sounding alarm bells about the case. "By criminalizing the distribution of 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," writes Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in a friend of the court brief.

Members of the news media are generally exempt from the McCain-Feingold restrictions. But Ms. Dalglish says the news media are in the midst of a massive overhaul that might complicate future FEC enforcement efforts.

"The technology journalists use to disseminate their content is rapidly changing, and there is an accompanying resurgence in independent content – blogs, documentaries, nonprofit journalism, and niche publications," she says.

Scott Nelson, a lawyer with the Public Citizen Litigation Group, a strong supporter of the McCain-Feingold law, disagrees. "The idea that it threatens legitimate journalism and people who are out creating documentaries, I think, is a stretch," he says.