By Dom Serafini
It is possible that a documentary, or Hollywood in particular, may change the course of American history. In the U.S. today, anyone can “buy” a politician, legally and openly, and political contributions are well documented. The crime is not committed by representing the interests of special groups, but in concealing the payments to politicians’ campaigns. American voters can easy find out which special interest groups “own” the allegiance of their politicians. This is what makes America unique. In many other countries, politicians are similarly bought, but in a non-transparent ways. Plus, in the U.S. it is the contributors who decide who should run for office, not the oligarchs. The problem is that under the protection of the First Amendment (i.e., Freedom of Speech), the political process has been distorted by the large amount of money invested by lobbyists, even though the concerned parties like to make the academic distinction between lobbying (legal) and influence peddling (illegal).
A new case to strain the First Amendment comes in the form of Hillary: The Movie. It’s a 90-minute documentary produced during the most recent presidential campaign that has reignited a debate that actually started in 1904.
The documentary did not find a TV outlet outside the Internet and CU’s DVD mail order release, despite the fact that one of Hillary’s main accusers in the documentary is Hollywood producer Peter Paul (a former convict). Actually, Hillary: The Movie, is based mainly on Hillary Uncensored —Banned By The Media, a 2007 documentary financed by Jim Nesfield and distributed by the Colorado-based Equal Justice Foundation of America. Nesfield is a controversial lawyer and financier who became CEO of Stan Lee Media after Peter Paul founded the company with Stan Lee. Subsequently, Paul sued Bill Clinton claiming that the President had destroyed his company.
Hillary: The Movie had been prevented by the Federal Election Commission from being shown on U.S. television because it was financed with corporate funds, something that has been illegal since 1905 when the Tillman Law was passed to keep corporate money out of political races.
Nevertheless, it triggered the Supreme Court (which has a conservative majority) to review the rights of corporations to contribute to political campaigns under the First Amendment. There are several arguments to be made against corporations attempting to distort the will of the voters by pouring lots of money into political campaigns. As the Supreme Court stated in 1990, corporations are barred from using their “immense aggregations of wealth” to buy ads to oppose or endorse a candidate.
One argument is that, as stated by U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, “Corporations are artificial persons [state-created entities] endowed by the government with significant special advantages that no natural person possesses.” Since they are not actual physical people, they cannot be equated with the people for which the U.S. Constitution was written.
The opposite view is that the First Amendment doesn’t make a distinction among beneficiaries of the freedom of speech. Plus, they say, what’s the difference between banning a video, a book or a newspaper article?
Another argument is that corporations, often multinationals, should not been allowed to manipulate electoral results though massive financial political contributions. For example, should a coal company operating in Wyoming but controlled by Chinalco, a major Chinese coal group be allowed to finance the campaign of a politician who supports higher particle and CO2 emissions in the air? Conversely, should such a corporation be allowed to discredit politicians who are against such pollutants via TV ads and programs?
Political contributions from individuals can come in different ways. Candidates, however, are mostly influenced by a few rich people and corporations as opposed to a multitude of poor people.
“If you have hundreds of millions of corporate dollars flowing into [political] races, it could drown out the speech of ordinary voters,” Trevor Potter, lawyer and advisor to former presidential candidate John McCain told The L.A. Times. If that were the case, the First Amendment would create the paradox of protecting a policy that in fact undermines the protection of the very same First Amendment’s Freedom of Speech. In this case, the First Amendment would not give a de jure protection for all people, but only for the rich.
When president Ronald Reagan pushed to have the Fairness Doctrine lifted in 1987, the change proved a windfall for TV stations, and made the political process more attuned to special interests that made corporate people like Rupert Murdoch kingmakers.
The Fairness Doctrine (introduced in 1949) together with the Equal Time Rule (introduced in 1927) allowed political candidates low-cost access to TV and more televised debates. When these rules were removed, politicians had to spend more time lobbying for political contributions than for legislative activities in order to pay for airtime. In general, $2 million is needed to run for a two-year House seat and $6 million for the six-year Senate seat.
If the First Amendment would sanction the right of corporations to influence the political process, the Congress should make the Fairness Doctrine a law as counterbalance.