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'Fahrenheit 9/11' Ads Could Defy Election Law, Group Charges

June 25, 2004|Lisa Getter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A pro-Republican group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission on Thursday, alleging that the marketing for Michael Moore's film "Fahrenheit 9/11" would violate election law.

Citizens United, which calls "Fahrenheit 9/11" and its television ads "pure political propaganda," argues that unless the film's ads are altered or pulled by July 31, Moore and the film's distributors will violate the section of election law that bans the use of corporate money to broadcast attack ads about a presidential candidate within 30 days of his party's national convention.

The citizens group says promotional TV ads for "Fahrenheit 9/11" should be pulled a month before the Republican National Convention convenes in New York City on Aug. 30.

The film, which opens today, focuses on President Bush's handling of Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq, ridiculing him and top advisors with footage that catches them in embarrassing moments.

"My goal is to have Michael Moore's advertisements, as they are, taken off the air," said David N. Bossie, president of Citizens United. "If he changes his advertising ... if he takes the president's likeness off the ads, then he can run the ads until he's blue in the face."

But Bossie faces an uphill battle. For one thing, the FEC normally takes months to process complaints. For another, it appears highly unlikely that the bipartisan six-member panel would rule against Moore, an Oscar-winning producer.

Moore issued a statement Thursday indicating he wasn't concerned about Bossie's complaint. "I am deeply concerned about whether or not the FEC will think I paid Citizens United to raise these issues regarding 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' " he said. "How else can you explain the millions of dollars of free publicity this right-wing group has given the movie? I plan on sending them a nice holiday card this year."

Tom Ortenberg, head of Lions Gate Films Releasing, which is involved in marketing the documentary, called it an "utterly frivolous complaint" and added, "We are confident that we are marketing the film in a wholly appropriate fashion."

Moore denies any overt effort to promote the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, although the film's release comes as both parties intensify plans for their summer conventions.

FEC commissioners would not talk specifically about the complaint, but several spoke generally about the issue of political documentaries.

Commissioner Michael E. Toner, a Republican, said he thought federal law clearly gave a filmmaker such as Moore the right to market his film however he pleased, with protection under the exemption normally given to the media.

"In looking at the statute, the legislative history and the case law, I don't think there's any doubt that independent filmmakers cannot be restricted," Toner said. "To consider otherwise would place the activities of independent filmmakers at considerable risk and raise serious constitutional issues."

Chairman Bradley A. Smith, who also is a Republican, said the question of who qualifies under the media exemption was not a simple one to decide.

"If filmmakers such as Moore, and also, I would note, book publishers, are not covered by the press exemption, than many publishers and filmmakers may already be in violation," he said.

Commissioner Scott Thomas, a Democrat, called the issue of documentary filmmakers "uncharted water." He says he thinks the FEC will focus on whether they are "truly independent of any candidate or party, whether they use traditional means for funding the distribution ... and whether they really seem to have as their primary purpose influencing elections."

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