WASHINGTON — A conservative group must abide by campaign-finance laws if it wants to run ads promoting its anti-Hillary Rodham Clinton movie, a federal court ruled yesterday.
Citizens United had hoped to run the television advertisements in key election states during peak primary season. The court ruling means the group must either keep its ads off the air or attach a disclaimer and disclose its donors.
Lawyers for the group had argued its 90-minute “Hillary: The Movie” was no different from documentaries seen on television news shows “60 Minutes” and “Nova.” That prompted skepticism and, at one point, outright laughter from the judges during a hearing last week.
Campaign regulations prohibit corporations and unions from paying for ads that run close to elections and identify candidates. Citizens United argued that the advertisements promoted the movie and should be treated as commercial speech as opposed to advocacy against the Democratic New York senator.
A three-judge panel disagreed. The film does not address legislative issues and was produced solely “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 court wrote in a unanimous ruling in Citizens United v. FEC.
A similar issue surfaced in 2004, when Citizens United sought to keep filmmaker Michael Moore from advertising “Fahrenheit 9/11” in the run-up to the presidential election. The Federal Election Commission dismissed the complaint after Moore said he had no plans to run the ads during election season.
Citizens United plans to run its ads in key primary states during election season. The ads include clips from the movie, including one in which Dick Morris — a former adviser to President Clinton who is now a critic of the Clintons — saying the New York senator is “the closest thing we have in America to a European socialist.”
By law, challenges to the campaign-finance regulations are considered by a three-judge panel of district and appellate judges in Washington. During last week’s hearing, Citizens United drew the most criticism from the panel’s two Republican nominees — U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth and Judge A. Raymond Randolph, an appellate judge. U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts was a nominee of President Clinton.
The movie is being sold on DVD and is scheduled for nine screenings in theaters. Campaign regulations do not apply to DVDs, theaters or the Internet, where the group has posted its ads.
James Bopp, an attorney for Citizens United, says he expects an appeal, which would automatically go to the Supreme Court. Clinton is in a tight race with Barack Obama for her party’s nomination. Citizens United says an Obama movie is in the works.