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‘Mr. Smith’ Gets Caught Up in Ideological Fight

Times Staff Writers

Amid the battle over filibusters in the U.S. Senate, a side skirmish has broken out over the most iconic, if fictional, filibuster of them all: Jimmy Stewart’s last stand in the 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

In television ads broadcast across the country in recent weeks, the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way used a clip from the film to argue its side of the debate: Smith, a populist senator portrayed by Stewart, vowing: “Wild horses aren’t going to drag me off this floor until those people have heard what I’ve got to say.”

But when a conservative group, the Committee for Justice, asked last week to use the same footage in a counter-ad, it was denied permission.

It turns out that the licensing department at Columbia Pictures, now a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment, gave the liberal group rights to the film clip in January under the impression that People for the American Way was a nonpartisan group that intended to use the image for a public service announcement.

Last week Sony received two requests, a spokeswoman said -- the one from the Committee for Justice and a second from the liberal Center for American Progress, a public policy organization that sought to screen the film at a political event in Washington.

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“By last week, when the two groups came to us, it was clear they wanted to license the material for use in a highly charged, partisan debate,” Sony spokeswoman Susan Tick said. “We said no because Sony Pictures Entertainment has a long-standing policy of not getting involved in these sorts of debates.”

The Center for American Progress went ahead with its rally, but did not screen the film.

Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, said his group was scrambling to rewrite the script of its ad, which was to use the “Mr. Smith” example to argue that Democrats were misusing the filibuster to block votes on controversial judges.

The committee’s ads had been scheduled to begin airing next week.

Rushton argued that out of fairness, even if the initial permission had been a mistake, Sony should create some balance by giving his group access to the same footage.

“Whether it was intentional or not, now the image of Mr. Smith has been captured by the left in a misleading way,” Rushton said.

Sony has asked People for the American Way to stop using the footage and to remove the ad containing the clip from its website. But it was still viewable Thursday afternoon at www.savethefilibuster.org, a site run by the People for the American Way Foundation.

People for the American Way did not return calls seeking comment.

The filibuster depicted in the movie is an inaccurate portrayal of the tactic. By the time the film was made, an individual senator could not single-handedly hold the floor -- a vote of 67 senators could end the debate and force a vote. That threshold has since been lowered to 60 senators.


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