The US Supreme Court this week takes up a potential crossroads case that could greatly expand the ability of corporations and labor unions to wield influence in federal elections.
The high court on Wednesday is re-hearing a case it heard last spring involving a Federal Election Commission (FEC) effort to block an unflattering 90-minute video portrait of Hillary Rodham Clinton. She was then running for the Democratic presidential nomination. The film was called, "Hillary: The Movie."
The FEC said the film was the equivalent of an electioneering attack advertisement and thus could be regulated under the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. The conservative nonprofit group that produced the film, Citizens United, charged that the FEC's actions amounted to unconstitutional suppression of political speech.
"Hillary: The Movie" is a documentary, the group said, not a political advertisement.
The case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, asks a fundamental question: Whether corporations and labor unions have the same protected First Amendment free speech rights as individuals to engage in political debate during elections without facing government censorship.
The answer to that question is important because it could open the door to a flood of corporate and union dollars to try to influence federal elections.
The case could mark a turning point in the legal battle over campaign-finance reform. The justices have suggested they will be taking a close look at two existing legal precedents with an eye toward overturning them. Both deal with government efforts to restrict corporate spending for certain issue advertising and other political broadcasts immediately prior to elections.
During the earlier oral argument in March, a government lawyer - in response to a hypothetical question - told the justices that the FEC had the power to ban corporate-produced political books that urge the election or defeat of a particular candidate. The exchange may have triggered the high court's decision to re-hear the case and closely examine the underlying precedents.
"When the government of the United States of America claims the authority to ban books because of their political speech, something has gone terribly wrong," writes Theodore Olson, lawyer for Citizens United, in his brief to the court. …