23 March 2009

As Voltaire Said...

Citizens United is a band of reactionary hypocrites. It's a documentary production company that makes films espousing the Republican viewpoint and criticizing liberal leaders. Back in 2004 they tried unsuccessfully to block TV advertising for Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 because they deemed it a form of electioneering activity regulated by the McCain-Feingold law. Last year the group made a critical documentary about Hillary Clinton and tried to get theaters to exhibit it. They got it in all of eight theaters, but when they tried to buy TV time to advertise the film, they were blocked by the Federal Elections Commission on the same McCain-Feingold principles that Citizens United tried to invoke against Michael Moore. The commission ruled in favor of Moore in 2004 because they took him at his word that he'd run no commercials for it during the general election season. Citizens United intended to run and advertise Hillary: The Movie during last year's Democratic primary season. After a lower court turned down the group's appeal, the case goes to the Supreme Court this week.

Something bugs me about equating a critical documentary movie, or an ad for the same, with a paid political advertisement. Cynics might say that if money equals speech, then any political commentary is a form of advertising, but since, in spite of the Supreme Court, I deny the former premise, I can't go along with the argument that a movie is a commercial, or that a commercial for a movie is the same as a commercial for or against a political candidate.

On the other hand, the regulations imposed by McCain-Feingold don't seem that awful. If the ads for Hillary are defined as "electioneering," all that means is that Citizens United must identify the financial backers of the commercials if they run during a campaign in which Clinton is a candidate. The group claims that such exposure might leave their sponsors vulnerable to retaliation, but that's a topic for another time -- after the court has ruled. So long as there's room to say the ads are not electioneering, Citizens United has no special obligation to tell who paid for them. The same goes for the movie itself. It's asserted that if the group made Hillary available for pay-per-view or on-demand viewing, it should also be treated as electioneering, and Citizens United would have to identify whoever financed the film -- again, only if it aired while Clinton were running for office. This doesn't sound right. People should be able to make films criticizing prominent politicians or other public figures without a presumption that they have shadowy backers who must be dragged into the sunlight. Nor does the nature of such a film essentially change if the subject happens to be running for office. To think otherwise is Bipolarchy logic, to assume that an attack on The One necessarily and automatically benefits The Other. I should be able to say someone is a menace without being presumed to be an agent of anyone but myself. The fact that Citizens United probably is an agent of the Republican party, in practice if not in writing, doesn't change that principle.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, apparently a legitimately non-partisan group, has filed an amicus brief supporting Citizens United. They warn that the courts could make it harder for journalists to publish critical commentary on politicians, since their work might get treated as advertising as well. Theirs seems to be the right position. If adhering to it requires some revision of the McCain-Feingold rules, then let it happen.

The head of Citizens United now says that "Michael Moore forced me to recognize the power of documentary film," according to the Associated Press. It isn't clear whether he's ever considered apologizing to Moore for trying to impede the promotion of Fahrenheit 9/11, but that uncertainty shouldn't stop us from concluding that just as the suit against Moore failed, so should the suit against his onetime persecutors.


INTJ said...

Why is C.U. hypocritical? People gave Michael Moore a pass for a 112-minute "documentary" about candidate Bush with as much fact in it as Harry Potter, even though he specifically said he wanted to defeat Bush, and McCain-Feingold explicitly prohibited it. Now the group that tried to point that out, only to be told it didn't count, has done the exact same thing, but their work was censored, and the government admits they can use the law to ban books! "Liberals" and "Progressives" who so blatantly ignore the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press....") only when it comes to people they hate.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing, INTJ. C.U. is hypocritical because they didn't give Moore a pass but want one now. They were also hypocritical, arguably, for invoking McCain-Feingold against Moore when they most likely opposed the law themselves.

"People" are also hypocritical if they "give Michael Moore a pass" but not C.U. The consistent principle of the thing is that a documentary film, however "partisan" it may seem, is not the same as a paid political advertisement. Moore and C.U. have the same right to make films denouncing politicians. That is authentic free speech, not the vicarious commodified speech that McCain-Feingold is meant to regulate.