On January 10, 2014, the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments from two political action committees that seek standing to thwart the strictures of the Ohio Election Commission, which, by statute, had sought to bar billboard ads that allegedly lied about a Congressional candidate’s positions. The candidate claimed that the ads were intentionally false and misleading, and were designed to damage his reputation and hurt his bid to retain his seat in the U. S. Congress. The political action committees (the Susan B. Anthony List, which is committed to female candidates who oppose abortion, and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes) have succeeded in having their appeal docketed for hearing by the high court (SBA List, et al, petitioners v. Steven Driehaus, et al ). Governmental attempts to “outlaw” election campaign lies raise significant and delicate “free speech” issues: Can states insist on truth in slander? Can states bar knowing falsehoods in ads whose purpose is to damage a particular candidacy?
The 50th anniversary of the landmark “free speech” / “freedom of the press” decision will be celebrated throughout the next few months. That 1964 decision could be the touchstone or makeweight in SBA List v. Driehaus, docket no. 13 – 193).
If judicial decisions were categorized like books, the U. S. Supreme Court’s 1964 opinion in Times v. Sullivan would be a modern classic. It’s been cited in over 6,300 cases and been referenced in over 25,000 pleadings, rulings, and journal articles.
If ranked like a book, the high-minded decision would be a perennial non-fiction best-seller. Ironically, the case came about as a result of fiction.