WASHINGTON - A conservative group asked federal election officials on Thursday to investigate whether television ads for director Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" violate campaign finance law regulating when commercials may feature a presidential candidate.
The Federal Election Commission might take months to issue a ruling on the complaint, making it unlikely the commission would act in time to affect the film's ad campaign. The two-hour documentary, which depicts President Bush as lazy and oblivious to warnings in summer 2001 that al-Qaida was poised to strike, opens nationwide on Friday.
The group Citizens United contended that commercials for "Fahrenheit 9/11" fall under federal campaign finance law. Regulations prohibit the use of corporate money to air ads identifying a presidential candidate in the 30 days before his party's nominating convention and the 60 days before the Nov. 2 election.
Bush will be nominated by the GOP during its New York convention Aug. 30-Sept. 2. Citizens United argued that "Fahrenheit 9/11" ads that identify Bush and are paid for with corporate money should be banned after July 31.
Moore called the complaint "a blatant attempt on the part of a right-wing, Republican-sponsored group to stop people from seeing my movie." He said he would fight the complaint, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus appearing with him at a news conference near the Capitol promised to help.
"It's a violation of my First Amendment rights that I cannot advertise my movie. It's a movie," Moore said. "I have not publicly endorsed John Kerry. I am an independent, I am not a member of the Democratic Party."
An exemption to the law frees a wide array of media organizations from the ban on the use of corporate money for ads identifying federal candidates close to elections. Moore, an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker, and the film might be covered by the media exemption.
Citizens United contends that "Fahrenheit 9/11" is propaganda and doesn't qualify for the media exemption. It is among conservative groups that have tried to mobilize the public against the film, arguing that Moore's portrayal of the Bush administration is inaccurate.
The group's complaint names Moore; companies involved in the film's marketing and distribution, including Lions Gate Entertainment Corp., Cablevision Systems Corp., Viacom International; and brothers Harvey and Bob Weinstein, executives at the film company Miramax who formed a separate company to find a way to distribute Moore's film.
The complaint also contends that because Lions Gate is foreign-owned, the ads are subject to a ban on the use of foreign money for ads identifying presidential candidates close to elections.
"Fahrenheit 9/11" won the top honor at last month's Cannes Film Festival. Moore and his distributors lost their appeal Tuesday to lower its rating from R to PG-13.
The FEC issued a decision Thursday on ads involving another film, but commissioners said it doesn't address Moore or ads promoting "Fahrenheit 9/11." In that ruling, the FEC told an Arizona man he couldn't use corporate money to run ads promoting his documentary film and identifying Bush and congressional candidates close to the election.
David Hardy, president of the Bill of Rights Educational Foundation in Tucson, Ariz., had asked the commission for its advice on whether he could use foundation money for the ads. Hardy didn't ask the commission whether his ads would qualify for the media exemption.