The Supreme Court will consider Tuesday whether two conservative groups can pursue a free-speech challenge to an Ohio false-statements law that if allowed would advance a broader push against state laws making it illegal to lie about a political candidate or ballot initiative. Although Ohio’s elections commission rarely refers complaints over false statements for prosecution, the conservative groups, including the antiabortion organization Susan B. Anthony List, said the law discouraged them from running advertisements against a Democratic congressman. “It almost never comes to a criminal prosecution, but that doesn’t mean there’s no chilling effect on speech,” Daniel Tokaji, a law professor at Ohio State University who isn’t involved in the case, said of the law. More than a dozen other states have laws authorizing criminal or civil penalties for spreading falsehoods in political campaigns. The Supreme Court’s eventual ruling, expected by June, is unlikely to affect the state laws or political discourse in the current elections cycle. The case would instead likely be sent back for lower courts to consider whether the false-statement law violates the First Amendment by improperly suppressing protected speech.
Tuesday’s case originated in the conservative backlash to the passage of President Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul in 2010. Susan B. Anthony List announced plans for a billboard against Democratic congressman Steve Driehaus for voting for the Affordable Care Act, which was to read: “Shame on Steve Driehaus! Driehaus voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortions.”
Mr. Driehaus, running for a second-term in a Cincinnati-area district, complained, saying the claims were false because both the health law and a related presidential order prohibit federal abortion funding.
An elections commission panel voted 2-1 along partisan lines finding “probable cause” that the claim was false, which would have sent the issue to the full commission for further consideration. Susan B. Anthony List decided to file suit challenging the false-statement law, and the parties agreed to delay the commission proceedings. Mr. Driehaus, meanwhile, lost re-election and dropped his complaint.