In a decision that could have a dramatic effect on the upcoming elections, the Supreme Court has ruled 5-4 in favor of a group of conservative filmmakers in the “Hillary: The Movie” Case. The result of the decision could increase spending for corporations, unions, and nonprofits in the election. I previously discussed the case and the likelihood of this 5-4 ruling. I discussed the case on this segment of Countdown. Other commentators like Glenn Greenwald have also weighed in on the case with similar views, here.
The ruling went down the ideological line with Justice Anthony Kennedy giving the majority the fifth vote and then writing the opinion. He stressed that “[o]ur nation’s speech dynamic is changing, and informative voices should not have to circumvent onerous restrictions to exercise their First Amendment rights.” That is the sentiment that motivated another of civil libertarians and free amendment advocates to support the conservative litigants. This is a case that split the free speech community with the ACLU and free speech advocates like Floyd Abrams supporting the conservative filmmakers in this case.
While there is much speculation on the impact on the upcoming elections, it is notable that two provisions were upheld by the Court (with only Thomas dissenting). The Court upheld the disclosure requirement that requires corporations to file a report with the FEC on contributors of $1,000 or more (when the corporation spends more than $10,000 a year to produce such ads. It also upheld the disclaimer requirement that requires that the producers say who is responsible for the ad if it not authorized by a candidate or a political committee.
However, the Court overturned critical holdings in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce (upholding restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates) and McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (upholding the central provisions of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law). The result is seismic for opening up elections to corporate spending. It is also a case of Justice Kennedy finally achieving a majority after voting against these limitations in 1990. While Justice Sandra Day O’Connor later changed her position to uphold campaign financing, Kennedy has remained firm that such limits run counter to the first amendment. He believes that public policy can be achieved through transparency provisions: “The government may regulate corporate political speech through disclaimer and disclosure requirements, but it may not suppress that speech altogether.”
The opinions offer strikingly different views of the First Amendment with Stevens writing: “The basic premise underlying the court’s ruling is its iteration, and constant reiteration, of the proposition that the First Amendment bars regulatory distinctions based on a speaker’s identity, including its ‘identity’ as a corporation.” While that glittering generality has rhetorical appeal, it is not a correct statement of the law.”
Both the Kennedy and Stevens opinions are very compelling and fascinating. The Kennedy decision does raise some questions over the sweep on his first amendment views and why any limits on campaign finances are constitutional. It also reintroduces the question of why corporations are treated as persons for the purposes of the first amendment. That latter question could now be the focus of a fight over a constitutional amendment. My opposition to a constitutional amendment is that I believe that there are more important political reforms to the system that need to be made. I do not believe that it is the money that has caused our political system to become so dysfunctional. It is also important to note that these restrictions were imposed on unions and non-for-profit corporations. The result of the restrictions, in my view, were disturbing line drawing as to what the government considered electioneering and what the government considered legitimate documentary work as with the distinction between Hillary the Movie and Fahrenheit 911.
There is a push now for a constitutional amendment, which I would not favor. It may be time for a paradigm change in how we think about this problem. We have a political failure in our system that is sucking the life out of the Republic. The monopoly of the two parties on power produces endless loops of corruption and conflict. The problem in my view is structural not financial. We need to break the domination of incumbents and the two parties. This can be done with fundamental changes in our primary system, eliminating the electoral college, creating new opportunities for third parties, and other reforms.
The FEC ruled that the film was prohibited as a “prohibited electioneering communication.” The lower court decisions proceeded to curtail the distribution of the film by restricting the conservative group in broadcasting and promoting the movie during the presidential primaries. In July, a three-judge panel granted the FEC’s motion for summary judgment.
Specifically, the desire of the group to put the movie in TV-on-demand access on cable TV was shelved due to the FEC’s decision.
Citizen United is challenging the federal “electioneering communications” disclosure requirements in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act — a prohibition on corporations and nonprofits from airing broadcast ads, which refer to a federal candidate 30 days before a primary election. Citizens United is using the Court’s decision in Wisconsin Right to Life v. FEC, which exempted issue advocacy from the electioneering communications prohibition.
Watching the trailers below, it is hard to distinguish this movie from a campaign ad. However, the rulings below should trouble free speech advocates. The court found that the 90-minute campaign ad “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.” That may be so, but such a conclusion could also be reached in a perfectly legitimate documentary or parody. Consider Michael Moore’s anti-Bush documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
The actual restrictions and their impact on the film are a bit more technical. The McCain-Feingold legislation requires that “any broadcast, cable or satellite communications” during the period before an election clearly state the name of the group paying for the ad is one such provision.
There is no question that Citizens United, a nonprofit corporation, has a bit of an obsession and hatred for both Clintons. It is the creation of Citizens United President David N. Bossie, a long Clinton critic.
The case raised both very broad and very technical questions. The threshold question, however, is the role of the government in making this judgment call between films from Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 to Hillary the Movie. Often literary works have a political purpose or message. Shakespeare’s work, particularly Richard III, has been described as a brilliant Tudor propaganda — Richard III was the last Yorkist king and vilifying the House of York was of great benefit to Shakespeare’s Tudor benefactors. Richard III was defeated by the first Tudor, Henry VII and the ancestor of Elizabeth I. In my Supreme Court seminar on the current case, my students and I discussed whether the FCC would require Shakespeare to add “Brought to you with the generous contributions of the Tudor Family.”
The vote in my Supreme Court class on the case was interesting. We split down the middle: Seven favored the ruling of the FCC while Seven would support Citizens United. However, the prediction of the likely outcome was heavily in favor of the Supreme Court affirming the lower three-judge panel against Citizens United.
Seth Waxman, who defended the law is predictably arguing stare decisis (Lat. “to stand by that which is decided”) and saying that a reversal of the earlier ruling after such a relatively short time would be “unseemly” and undermine the credibility of the Court.
Ted Olson argued that the law has created a “chilling effect” on first amendment rights and free speech. Many civil libertarians are sympathetic with those arguments — viewing the ruling as an affront to free speech. That includes Floyd Abrams a liberal defender of free speech who is representing Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in one of the dozens of amicus filings.
Notably, when the Court last considered this law, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor voted to supply the fifth vote upholding the law in McConnell v. FEC in 2003. Her seat is now held by Justice Samuel Alito who predictably voted with the majority. Sotomayor voted as expected the same way as Souter to uphold the law.
Notably, Alito spoke out at the last hearing at a critical moment. In the March argument, the government argued that hypothetically the government could make it a crime to distribute books advocating the election or defeat of political candidates. The distinction that was drawn was whether it was paid for by corporate money rather than a political action committee. Alito exclaimed “[t]hat’s pretty incredible.”
I was sympathetic with Citizens United and the free speech groups. In the end, I have to favor more speech than less in such conflicts. While I would have written a concurrence and have difficulty with aspects of the majority opinion, I probably would have voted to support the majority in the result in this case. However, I do consider this to be one of the most difficult free speech cases to hit the court in decades. Many of my friends are on the other side and I understand that this is quite a blow. People of good faith can disagree on such issues. It really broke along a fine line. It depends on whether your gravitational point tended to fall along the free speech line or the good government line. It is a rare case where those lines ran perpendicular rather than parallel with each other.
For the trailers of the movie, see below:
You can read the opinion at this link.
For the full story, click here.