The Paradox Of Trump Threatening Documentary Filmmaker While Supporting Citizens United

from the fine-for-me,-not-for-anyone-else dept

I’m not sure if Donald Trump has ever officially weighed in on the famous Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, but if he did, I’m guessing he would support that ruling wholeheartedly. After all, he recently hired the former President of Citizens United to be his deputy campaign manager. And, I know that people freak out about the term “Citizens United” and some believe it’s the root cause of all evil in American politics today, but that’s wrong. At its heart, that case was a First Amendment free speech case, about whether a group (Citizens United) could show a documentary film heavily critical of Hillary Clinton close to the 2008 election. We can all argue about the evils of campaign finance and dark money and super PACs, but there should be ways to fix that without banning movies.

Either way, it’s quite ironic that with the former head of Citizens United helping to lead his campaign, Trump is now basically arguing against the very Citizens United ruling by threatening to sue lots of folks associated with a new documentary, called You’ve Been Trumped Too. Unfortunately, the filmmaker hasn’t released the actual threat letters, so we can’t see the details, but he claims that “Trump is threatening to sue movie theatres, reporters or anyone who repeats the allegations made in my new film.” People Magazine claims it’s seen the threat letters but chosen not to post them.

The documentary is actually the third in a series of documentaries that Anthony Baxter has made about Trump, mostly focusing on a family in Scotland that the Trump family has bullied and generally treated exceptionally badly while building a giant golf course where they lived. In response to the claimed threat, Baxter decided to stream the film live on Facebook last week. Most of the reviews I’ve read of the film basically say that there’s not enough material to make a true feature film documentary, and that it’s basically a one-note follow-up on the earlier films, trying to capitalize on the election.

But, either way, Baxter should be able to make and release his film without legal threats. And if Trump truly supported Citizens United, he’d agree. But, of course, like so many today, it appears that Trump is willing to support free speech when it serves his interests, but not when it serves others’. And, of course, the same goes for Hillary Clinton — who has talked about overturning Citizens United. That’s a bit unseemly, of course. Pledging to overturn a ruling that said a movie criticizing you could be released?

Nobody comes out of any of this looking good. Which, you know, is basically the theme of this election. Thankfully it’s finally over tomorrow.

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Comments on “The Paradox Of Trump Threatening Documentary Filmmaker While Supporting Citizens United”

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22 Comments
Paul Alan Levy (profile) says:

Apples and oranges

I can denounce Voldemort with the best of them (in fact, I am posting this from Florida where I am Doing GOT and voter protection for the Clinton campaign), but I am not sure there is a fair equivalence between his views on Citizens United and the threats he has reportedly made over this movie. He seems to be threatening defamation litigation, not threatening to invoke the campaign finance laws (which are exclusively enforced by the FEC, not by private litigation).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Apples and oranges

Yeah, this is different. Citizens United being overturned would mean that the film couldn’t be shown even if everything in it was true. But if a film contains lies about Trump, him suing for defamation is perfectly appropriate. (I haven’t seen the film and have no opinion on whether it actually does contain lies.)

Almost Anonymous (profile) says:

Overturning Citizens United

I am actually very much for overturning the horrible Citizens United ruling. Corporations do not exist, they are merely a polite fiction, and as such should not be given any rights as put forth in our constitution.

Having said that, I’d be just fine with corporate personhood if I had ever seen a corporation be punished in any meaningful way, like going to jail or maybe the death penalty. But so much illegal activity just gets swept under the rug because "corporation".

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Overturning Citizens United

Right, that’s the problem with the Citizens United ruling. It didn’t simply support the release of a film based on the premise that film is speech (which should be an uncontroversial viewpoint by now); it enshrined into law that (1) corporations have the same constitutional rights as individuals and (2) money is speech.

The problem with defining money as speech is that it fundamentally creates a some-are-more-equal-than-others proposition: by definition, it states that rich people get more freedom of speech than poor people. (While I suppose this has always been effectively true, I would say it’s pretty alarming to actually enshrine it in First Amendment case law.)

Combining it with corporate personhood, you’ve now given a tremendous advantage to entities that are capable of amassing more capital than an individual ever could, and which can live for hundreds of years.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Overturning Citizens United

Some level of corporate personhood is necessary to be able to hold them liable.

But you can easily contest how broad a personhood it is providing without giving anything near the same level of liability.

The way the Citizen United ruling has been written and interpreted, there is no denying that the ruling is problematic in terms of how far it goes in defending the rights of corporate entities, without acknowledging the need for balancing it against liability.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re: Overturning Citizens United

Some level of corporate personhood is necessary to be able to hold them liable.

But you can easily contest how broad a personhood it is providing without giving anything near the same level of liability.

I’d debate whether or not corporate liability counts as "personhood", but I agree with the gist of what you’re saying.

The way the Citizen United ruling has been written and interpreted, there is no denying that the ruling is problematic in terms of how far it goes in defending the rights of corporate entities, without acknowledging the need for balancing it against liability.

It also bears noting that the ruling was not intended to preclude all forms of campaign finance regulation, and explicitly recommended that Congress step up and pass new regulations that fit within its parameters. That, of course, did not happen.

Eldakka (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Overturning Citizens United

Some level of corporate personhood is necessary to be able to hold them liable.

I believe that other paths could have been taken to be able to hold corporations liable than the shortcut, or the legal fiction, of declaring corporations as persons.

As I understand it, the legal fiction of saying that corporations were people arose out of contract law, where only people could enter into, and be bound by/liable for contracts. Which worked fine when the only business types of the era were individuals, families where you had a head of a family (e.g. Venetian trading families, noble families, etc.) who could enter into contracts, or partnerships where the partners can take personal liability for contracts. However, when this new business type, the limited liability corporation, arose, there was no person, no owner, who could or would take personal liability, personal responsibility, for contracts. Therefore, technically under the law, these corporations could not enter into nor be held liable for contracts. Which means no loans (lending or borrowing), no investors, no insurance, no trading agreements, no supply agreements, no land ownership, no ownership of anything that required a contract to implement, pretty much entirely hobbled.

To get around this, and to allow the business construct of the corporation function, the courts of the day, not the legislature’s, adopted the legal fiction that a corporation was a person. From that point on, as they were now legally people, corporations could enter into and be held liable for contracts.

Now, I think this was a fine, short-term common law fix to the problem. However, the legislature’s got lazy and just went with this common law fix. In IT we’d call this a temporary work-around while the bug was properly fixed in code (legislation). But there never was a proper fix, the work-around was allowed to become the norm.

Legislation could have been enacted that allowed for corporations to enter contracts without them being granted personhood. Or could have been enacted that allowed them limited personhood, only applicable to contract law and for no other purposes. But since we were relyng on the common law definition that a corporation was a person, that then led to the perverse issues we have today around whether legislation, constitutions, and other existing or new laws apply or do not apply to corporations as they are people.

I mean, rather than what I think should be the de-facto situation where unless specifically included a corporation is included (opt-in), we have a situation where legislation has to be crafted to specifically exclude corporations (opt-out) if the drafters don’t want to include corporations. And this is typically done by using phrasing such as natural person rather than just saying person.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Overturning Citizens United

I am actually very much for overturning the horrible Citizens United ruling. Corporations do not exist, they are merely a polite fiction, and as such should not be given any rights as put forth in our constitution.

But here’s the thing… You say that corporations shouldn’t have rights, but what about TechDirt? It’s run by Floor64, which is a corporation. Should it not be allowed to run stories that may be favorable to one candidate or the other within 60 days of an election? Should it not be able to run THIS story because it’s somewhat unfavorable to Trump? Wouldn’t that be absolutely ridiculous? Forget about TechDirt’s rights or Floor64’s rights – wouldn’t that kind of impair Mike Masnick’s free speech and/or free press rights? Should he not be able to speak while using his corporation?

In the end, there are always people behind the corporations (because, after all, those corporations ARE a legal fiction.) Corporations that aren’t a sole proprietorship are just people pooling their resources, really. I don’t have the resources to make a film – but I can donate to, or partially own, a group that does. We give corporations fictitious rights to protect the actual rights of those behind the corporation.

Having said that, I’d be just fine with corporate personhood if I had ever seen a corporation be punished in any meaningful way, like going to jail or maybe the death penalty.

I’m not sure how you put a corporation in jail. Corporations are, ordinarily, fined if they are convicted of something. But fine them enough, and they ARE basically given the death penalty, in the form of bankruptcy.

Glathull (profile) says:

That sums it up for me

“Nobody comes out of any of this looking good. Which, you know, is basically the theme of this election.”

That’s sort of where it is for me. It’s the night before election, and I still don’t know who I’m going to vote for.

In my opinion, they are both equally incompetent re: most things that I care about as a software developer. Neither of them has any clue about “the cyber”; neither of them are going to do anything about the idiot copyright or patent laws we have.

From my point of view, one of the best and fastest ways to spur economic growth would be to do things that enable more people to take part in the world of starting legitimate software companies.

More and better education of the type that makes good developers. I’m not talking about code schools that take 6 month and put an incompetent junior dev on the market who can’t find a job. I’m talking about liberal arts, a strong empathy for a diverse group of clients that leads to, and the philosophy that leads you down a path of loving logic for its own sake.

Education is a starting place for software businesses, but so is a legal system that doesn’t guarantee that you need a *lot* of startup capital to protect yourself from lawsuits if you do manage to come up with a good idea and execute it and market it well enough for it to be successful.

I think that education is likely to get better under a Hillary administration than it is a Trump administration. Odds are that intellectual property laws are more likely to get better under Trump. And I say that because I think that even though he’s stupid and does exactly what this article talks about, he will unwittingly appoint SCOTUS justices who support his idea of making it easier to start and maintain businesses. I think he’s genuine about that, and when he finds out that certain things are bad for that, he will do what he can to make that happen. There is zero doubt in my mind that Trump is genuinely pro-business. Except for when it’s an inconvenience to him.

Okay, fine, you might say. That’s what suits you. These things are not only not available to many–perhaps even most–people. What are they supposed to do? And how are you going to help them? We can’t just leave the poor and the uneducated out of the working pool, even if that is the direction our economy seems to be going. For better or worse–and I won’t claim one or the other now–the direction our economy has been heading is towards knowledge workers. Not physical production.

Well, in this case, I have to think that Clinton–based on actual policy talks–is the winner here. Trump wants nothing to do with the poor. Clinton wants to increase social programs, and that is a good thing. Clinton is the one pressing for better education, and not sequestering people into vocational schools. So I kind of like her. The ultimate end of Clinton’s stated social goals is doubling down on healthcare reform, a basic income (this won’t happen, but it’s the next target if you look at the linear regression line of her trajectory for social programs).

In a very strange turn of events, Clinton is the warhawk, which I want nothing to do with. And Trump is the one saying we need to tone it down overseas. I don’t even know what to say about that other than, “Shame on you, Democratic party.”

As far as I can tell, we’re pretty much fucked. There’s no possible way that I can think of in which we get anything good.

I wish I could end this with a surprise, “Vote X!” But I can’t. No plot twist here. Just plain old, “ugh”.

Sorry if this is severely off topic for this forum.

Only thing I can think of to say relevant to the article is this: “Think about the Supreme Court. The next president will shape it for decades.” That’s what really matters. I wish I could pick one that candidate who was at the very least neutral on some things I care about. Wish I could vote for a president likely to nominate someone sane. But that seems unlikely for both.

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