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Originally published Sunday, March 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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"Hillary: The Movie" next on Supreme Court docket

Months after its debut, "Hillary: The Movie" faces nine of the nation's toughest critics: the Supreme Court. The justices' review of the...

The Associated Press

Calendar

Monday: Closing arguments tentatively expected in murder case against music producer Phil Spector in Los Angeles.

Tuesday: President Obama holds a televised news conference at 5 p.m. PDT; Supreme Court hears arguments.

Thursday: NCAA men's basketball tournament regional semifinals in Indianapolis, through March 29.

The Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — Months after its debut, "Hillary: The Movie" faces nine of the nation's toughest critics: the Supreme Court.

The justices' review of the documentary financed by longtime critics of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton may settle the question of whether the government can regulate a politically charged film as a campaign ad.

David Bossie, a former Republican congressional aide who produced the Clinton movie and another describing then-Sen. Barack Obama as an overhyped media darling, said his films are about important moments in U.S. politics.

"The outcome of this case will dictate how we're able to make films and educate people about them," he said.

At issue in the case being argued before justices Tuesday is the 90-minute anti-Clinton movie and television ads Bossie wanted to air during the 2008 primaries advertising the film.

Bossie's group, Citizens United, released the movie as Clinton, then a New York senator, was competing with Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The movie is unquestionably anti-Clinton, featuring commentary from conservative pundits, some of whom specifically say Clinton was not fit to be commander-in-chief.

One scene, which was used in an ad, has Dick Morris, a former adviser to President Clinton who is now a critic of the Clintons, saying the senator is "the closest thing we have in America to a European socialist."

The movie was shown in eight theaters. Bossie's group wanted to run ads on television in key election states during peak primary season and show the movie on cable television's video-on-demand.

Federal courts said the ads would violate the McCain-Feingold law, the popular name for 2002 revisions to the nation's campaign-finance laws. Judges called "Hillary: The Movie" a 90-minute attack ad, a ruling that would require Citizens United to identify the financial backers for the ads if they were to appear on television.

The court also said that if Bossie's group showed the movie on cable television, financial backers would have to be named and the group would have to pay the cost of airing the movie.

Citizens United appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that "Hillary: The Movie" should not be considered a political ad. The group said there is nothing in the movie urging people to vote against Clinton. The group said the film is more of a documentary comparable to television news programs such as "Frontline," "Nova" and "60 Minutes."

"The fact that 'Hillary' presents a critical assessment of Sen. Clinton's political background, character, and fitness for office does not convert the movie ... into an appeal to vote against Sen. Clinton," said Theodore Olson, Citizens United's lawyer.

A panel of federal judges disagreed, calling "Hillary" nothing but an extended-length political attack ad. The Justice Department agreed, saying " 'Hillary' is a 90-minute advocacy piece whose unmistakable meaning is that Hillary Clinton should not be elected president."

Some question whether that declaration strays too close to regulation of journalists, who generally have been exempt from campaign-finance rules.

Without passing judgment on the content of "Hillary," the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a brief supporting Citizens United, telling the Supreme Court the media have been critical of presidential candidates since George Washington.

"By criminalizing the distribution of a long-form documentary film, as if it was 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," the group said.

If the decision is upheld, "I can certainly see journalists running afoul of this law in the future," lawyer Lucy Dalglish said.

This isn't the first time documentary filmmakers have been questioned in relation to campaign-finance laws. Citizens United in 2004 sought to keep filmmaker Michael Moore from advertising "Fahrenheit 9/11" — which was critical of President George W. Bush — in the months before the presidential election.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC), charged with enforcing the McCain-Feingold law, dismissed the complaint after Moore said he had no plans to run ads during election season.

Bossie said Moore's success is what inspired him. "Michael Moore forced me to recognize the power of documentary film," said Bossie, who was involved in the House's investigation of Bill Clinton that led to the president's impeachment and trial.

Soon after Obama secured the nomination, Bossie's organization came out with "Obama: The Hype Effect" and ran into the same legal problems with the FEC. That didn't stop the group from having free DVDs inserted into The Columbus Dispatch, The Cincinnati Enquirer, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post and the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The case is Citizens United v. FEC, 08-205.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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