The case of “Hillary: The Movie”

You might think it’s only in Iran that supporting or opposing a politician can be a criminal offense.

“Hillary: The Movie” is a documentary film produced by an advocacy group called Citizens United. It lambastes Hillary Clinton. Its distribution has been barred by the Federal Elections Commission (pursuant to Congressional enactment).

Apparently some fine print in the U.S. Constitution has been overlooked: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Or maybe that language is just too ambiguous.

At any rate, the case is now before the Supreme Court. The issue is fundamental: to what extent can the government regulate political advocacy, or even outlaw it? Some argue that such power is necessary or else politics can be corrupted by money spent by, say, corporations.

I share their concern about money distorting politics (and even lament this problem in my recent book). But spending money on, for example, political ads, or documentary films, that support or oppose politicians is certainly a form of freedom of speech — indeed, it is the most important aspect of freedom of speech. The freedom to say you hate Broccoli is not that critical. But the freedom to say you hate Hillary — and to express that opinion in the public square — is absolutely critical to our democratic system. That’s why the Constitution does not say “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, except when it deems such abridgement desirable.” The framers knew exactly what they were doing in writing the First Amendment in such unequivocal language.

This Congress has essentially disregarded in passing laws that subject political advocacy to federal regulations and limitations. Thus, the politicians who run the government, in effect, claim the power to restrict what their political opponents can say about them. For instance, they have placed restrictions on ads that support or criticize political candidates in the weeks before an election. If you form an organization, “Citizens for Free Trade,” and raise money, and want to run an ad before an election saying, “Congressman Charlie Rumpkisser opposes free trade; vote against him” — that can be against the law. In America!!!

And, so far, the Supreme Court has upheld this.

Civil Liberties attorney Floyd Abrams, representing the film-makers, says “Criminalizing a movie about Hillary Clinton is a constitutional desecration.”

4 Responses to “The case of “Hillary: The Movie””

  1. Freedom of speech threatened — again « The Rational Optimist Says:

    […] one might imagine these principles were settled beyond dispute. (See my previous blog entries on “Hillary: The Movie”; the UN “human rights” panel; and one […]

  2. Lee Says:

    Those tricky politicians square the argument differently. If you want to be certified as a corporation or non-profit of such-and-such a type then you must abide by such-and-such restrictions including giving up freedom of speech. In theory, you don’t have to form such a entity and thus the pols are not abridging freedom of speech, merely defining what it means to be that type of entity. Or so the argument goes.

    I have hopes that the Supreme Court tosses this crap in the can. While I suppose it is arguable whether “freedom of speech” applies to corporations and other entities, our founding fathers knew full well that “freedom of the press” gave the equivalent power to corporations. I hope the Supreme Court says as much (or some equivalent with equal strength).

    In the meantime we are going to have to find another way to keep a count of votes (democracy) from being dominated by a count of money (capitalism?). You and I have discussed the merits of mechanisms that enable individuals to outspend the special interests. I think we need one of those.

  3. bruce Says:

    The idea that corporations should have free speech rights is garbage. Ever watch TV? In ad after ad corporations lie about their products and hide behind free speech rights and corporate immunity. If I tell you to drive recklessly on the highway, I can be arrested and sued. When car sellers do it, they win ad awards and everybody says “go buy their stuff”.

    Sometimes there is a cross-over effect. These laws should be applied to advertising by corporations. Groups advocating against politicians right before an election aren’t really trying to play fair, it’s all about propaganda and psychological manipulation of the voters. Motivations matter, as you, Frank, have argued in past threads.

  4. Corporate Personhood in a Free Society « The Rational Optimist Says:

    […] free speech guarantees bar such government regulation of political advocacy. (Please see my blog post preceding the […]

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