Citizens United V. Federal Election Commission - Background

Background

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (known as BCRA or McCain–Feingold Act)—specifically §203, which modified the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, 2 U.S.C. § 441b—prohibited corporations and unions from using their general treasury to fund "electioneering communications" (broadcast advertisements mentioning a candidate) within 30 days before a primary or 60 days before a general election. During the 2004 presidential campaign, a conservative nonprofit 501(c)(4) organization named Citizens United filed a complaint before the Federal Election Commission (FEC) charging that advertisements for Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11, a documentary critical of the Bush administration's response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, constituted political advertising and thus could not be aired within the 30 days before a primary election or 60 days before a general election. The FEC dismissed the complaint after finding no evidence that broadcast advertisements for the movie and featuring a candidate within the proscribed time limits had actually been made. The FEC later dismissed a second complaint which argued that the movie itself constituted illegal corporate spending advocating the election or defeat of a candidate, which was illegal under the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and the Federal Election Campaign Act Amendments of 1974. In dismissing that complaint, the FEC found that:

The complainant alleged that the release and distribution of FAHRENHEIT 9/11 constituted an independent expenditure because the film expressly advocated the defeat of President Bush and that by being fully or partially responsible for the film's release, Michael Moore and other entities associated with the film made excessive and/or prohibited contributions to unidentified candidates. The Commission found no reason to believe the respondents violated the Act because the film, associated trailers and website represented bona fide commercial activity, not "contributions" or "expenditures" as defined by the Federal Election Campaign Act.

In the wake of these decisions, Citizens United sought to establish itself as a bona fide commercial film maker, producing several documentary films between 2005 and 2007. By early 2008, it sought to run television commercials to promote its latest political documentary Hillary: The Movie and to air the movie on DirecTV. The movie was highly critical of then-Senator Hillary Clinton, with the District Court describing the movie as an elongated version of a negative 30-second television spot. In January 2008, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the television advertisements for Hillary: The Movie violated the BCRA restrictions of "electioneering communications" within 30 days of a primary. Though the political action committee claimed that the film was fact-based and nonpartisan, the lower court found that the film had no purpose other than to discredit Clinton's candidacy for president. The Supreme Court docketed the case on August 18, 2008, and heard oral argument on March 24, 2009.

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