A federal judge on Thursday struck down an Ohio campaign law making it illegal to lie about political candidates. The ruling by U.S. District Judge Timothy S. Black overturned a post-Watergate law aimed at cleaning up the political process that came under challenge by two conservative groups on First Amendment grounds. Among its provisions is a ban on false statements during campaigns and on ballot initiatives. Judge Black, in his opinion, said the law placed an unjustifiable burden on free speech:
In short, 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 re-write the statutes; that is the job of the Legislature.
The decision came just days after the 8th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a century-old Minnesota statute that outlawed false statements about ballot proposals. The court that presided over the Ohio case is part of a different federal circuit.
As WSJ earlier reported, the Ohio case emerged in the wake of the Affordable Care Act’s passage in 2010. Susan B. Anthony List, an antiabortion group, planned to put up billboards accusing Rep. Steve Driehaus, a Cincinnati Democrat who backed the health-care overhaul, of voting for “taxpayer-funded abortion.” Mr. Driehaus, who was campaigning for another term, said the claims were false, pointing to provisions in the health law and a related presidential order prohibiting federal abortion funding.
An elections commission panel voted 2-1 along partisan lines that there was probable cause to believe that Susan B. Anthony List had violated the political false-statements laws. A final outcome was put off after the group filed a First Amendment suit challenging the law. The Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes filed a similar suit. Mr. Driehaus, meanwhile, lost his re-election bid and dropped his complaint.
While lower courts dismissed the complaint, the U.S. Supreme Court in June held that the two groups could go ahead with their challenge, concluding the plaintiffs had standing to sue.