Judge Strikes Down Ohio’s Law Banning Campaign Lies

A Cincinnati federal judge struck down an Ohio election law that bans lies in political campaigns by candidates or independent organizations.

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Cincinnati federal judge struck down an Ohio election law that bans lies in political campaigns by candidates or independent organizations. 

U.S. District Judge Timothy S. Black ruled Sept. 11 that the 19-year-old law was “inherently flawed” because it granted a government agency — the Ohio Elections Commission — the power to determine which political statements in campaign commercials and billboards were false.

“Instead, in a democracy, the voters should decide,” Black wrote in a 25-page opinion. “Lies have no place in the political area. … The problem is that, at times, there is no clear way to determine whether a political statement is a lie or the truth. What is certain, however, is that we do not want the government deciding what is political truth.”

The law barred anyone from knowingly or recklessly distributing false information about a candidate. Black’s ruling comes after the Supreme Court unanimously found in June that two independent Cincinnati organizations, an anti-tax group and an anti-abortion group, could challenge the law’s constitutionality.

Susan B. Anthony List and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes both sued Ohio over the law in 2010, contending that it violated free speech rights.

The case arose after then-U.S. Rep. Steve Driehaus filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission over Susan B. Anthony List’s plans to erect billboards accusing him of supporting taxpayer-funded abortions because he had voted in favor of Obamacare.

Driehaus, a Cincinnati Democrat who was campaigning for another term, said the claims were false, citing a presidential order that prohibits federal abortion funding. The owner of the billboard, fearing legal action, never posted the ad, and Driehaus dropped the suit after he lost re-election to U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot.

But Susan B. Anthony List took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, along with COAST, which said that it too had wanted to criticize Driehaus but didn’t for fear of violating the law.

Black ruled 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, and the court is not empowered to rewrite the statutes; that is the job of the legislature.”

Susan B. Anthony List now plans to criticize Congress members who backed the 2010 healthcare overhaul in the midterm election, particularly Toledo U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who opposes abortion.

“[Black’s] decision allows us to freely communicate the truth with voters — that elected representatives who voted for the Affordable Care Act voted for taxpayer-funded abortion,” Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a statement.

Supporters of the health care law note that federal subsidies cannot cover abortions except in cases of incest, rape or a medical threat to the mother’s life.

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