Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Federal judge strikes down Ohio's ban on lying in political campaigns

A judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio struck down Ohio laws that ban lying in political campaigns last Thursday. Judge Timothy Black found that the laws were "more burdensome than necessary to accomplish their alleged objectives and do not satisfy strict scrutiny under the Constitution of the United States" and permanently enjoined their enforcement.

The case before Judge Black began with former U.S. Representative Steve Driehaus' re-election campaign in 2010. According to an article by the Wall Street Journal, the antiabortion group Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List) had planned to put up billboards accusing Driehaus of "voting for 'taxpayer-funded abortion,'" because he had voted for passage of the Affordable Care Act. Driehaus filed a complaint with the Ohio Election Commission (OEC), alleging that the group had violated Ohio's laws against political lies by making these allegations. The OEC found probable cause that SBA List violated those laws.

Driehaus later dropped the complaint when he lost the election, but SBA List continued to pursue legal action in the case. The organization was joined by the anti-tax group Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), which claimed that they had intended to make similar statements about Driehaus, but did not do so out of fear of adverse actions like those taken against SBA List. The parties pursued the case in federal court in southern Ohio. Initially, Judge Black dismissed the case, ruling that neither party met requirements of standing or ripeness, as there was no longer a complaint pending with the OEC. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled, in a unanimous opinion drafted by Justice Clarence Thomas, that the parties could pursue their claims in the district court.

After a subsequent hearing, Judge Black found Ohio's laws unconstitutional, stating that "the answer to false statements in politics is not to force silence, but to encourage truthful speech in response, and to let the voters, not the Government, decide what the political truth is. Ohio’s false-statements laws do not accomplish this." His decision focused on recent Supreme Court case U.S. v. Alvarez, which found that false statements were protected speech under the  First Amendment, and an 8th Circuit case, which struck down a Minnesota statute similar to Ohio's just a few days prior. The Cincinnati Enquirer reports that Black also took inspiration from popular media, as he quoted the Netflix program House of Cards in his decision, stating "There's no better way to overpower a trickle of doubt than with a flood of naked truth." According to the Enquirer, the Ohio Elections Commission is currently determining whether to appeal the decision.

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