Supreme Court: Free Speech vs. Campaign Donations

Supreme Court hears case of 2008 Anti-Clinton film.

ByABC News
September 8, 2009, 2:51 PM

Washington, Sept. 9, 2009 — -- The Supreme Court, in a rare September session, met on Wednesday to hear new arguments in a case that could be key to the way elections are run and bankrolled in the future.

At issue was "Hillary: The Movie" a 2008 film critical of then-presidential-candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton. It was made by a nonprofit conservative group and targeted for distribution during the last presidential primary through a "video on demand" service.

But the Federal Election Commission stepped in and banned its distribution, ruling that the movie was the equivalent of a campaign ad attacking a candidate. Because the film was made partly with corporate contributions, the commission ruled it was "electioneering communications" -- subject to restrictions under campaign finance law.

In court today, a lawyer for the nonprofit group, Citizens United, urged the justices to revisit court precedent and allow corporate funds as they had been used for "Hillary: The Movie."

"Robust debate about candidates for elective office is the most fundamental value protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech," said Theodore Olson, arguing for Citizens United. "Yet that is precisely the dialogue that the government has prohibited if practiced by unions or corporations."

Liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked the first question of the 90 minute argument. She suggested there is a distinction between rights of individuals and those of corporations.

"A corporation, after all, is not endowed by its creator with inalienable rights" she said.

Justice Antonin Scalia was critical of recent attempts by Congress to restrict corporate spending. He said, "I doubt that one can expect a body of incumbents to draw election restrictions that do not favor incumbents. Now is that excessively cynical of me? I don't think so."