WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court will hold a second round of oral arguments later this year in a federal campaign finance law suit filed against the makers of a documentary film highly critical of former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Chief Justice John Roberts said the case will be heard Sept. 9.
The issue before the court is whether the prohibition on corporate electioneering communications in the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, a.k.a. the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, covers a film about Clinton. Also at issue is whether the law's disclaimer, disclosure and reporting requirements can be constitutionally applied to advertisements for that film.
In 2007, Citizens United, a conservative non-profit organization, started work on a 90-minute biography of then-candidate Clinton. It was ready for air in January, 2008; the same month as the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, in which Clinton was competing against then-Sen. Barack Obama.
Citizens United sought to distribute the film through a cable provider's on-demand system and to promote the film through advertisements. But under the federal campaign finance law, Citizens United was prohibited from completing its cable deal because the film was considered "prohibited electioneering communication."
Its ads were also shelved because of a disclosure requirement forcing Citizens United to reveal the names of its donors. Something the filmmakers didn't want to do.
A three judge panel in Washington, D.C., ruled against Citizens United's attempts to stop the Federal Election Commission from cracking down on the film. The judges determined that the film, contrary to Citizens United's argument that it was strictly a biography, had "no other interpretation" other than as an advocacy message to voters that Clinton should not be elected president. It also ruled against Citizens United's claims that forcing them to reveal their donor list in order to run advertisements was a violation of the First Amendment.
In its appeal to the Supreme Court, Citizens United says the lower court erroneously applied the campaign finance law to its film and organization. It is also a law they argue "imposes sweeping restrictions on core political speech."
The Obama administration is defending the law and counters that the film is "unmistakenly an appeal to viewers to vote against" Clinton.
The government argues the court has "repeatedly sustained" federal campaign finance laws in the past and should do so again in this case. The lawmakers who sponsored the original legislation, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and former Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., and Marty Meehan, D-Mass., submitted a joint in a friend of the court brief defending the law.
This is the third significant Supreme Court challenge to the federal campaign finance law. Earlier this decade, the court ruled that the law's prohibition on corporate electioneering communications, as well as its reporting, disclosure and disclaimer requirements were valid. The court later clarified its position to say that only messages of "express advocacy" or its functional equivalent could be prohibited.
Monday’s announcement from the court says it is this part of the law they are asking both sides to address in the new round of arguments.