As an advocate against misguided government restrictions on freedom of speech, I was pleased the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously on June 16, 2014 (Susan B. Anthony List v. Steven Driehaus) that the plaintiffs had standing to continue a First Amendment challenge of a 1995 Ohio law that allows for criminal penalties against those making false statements during political campaigns.
The dispute arose between Congressman Steven Driehaus and pro-life groups during his re-election campaign. The pro-life groups claimed that Driehaus’ vote for the Obamacare law was support for taxpayer-funded abortion. The Ohio Election Commission (“OEC”) found “probable cause” the statement was false. The Plaintiffs were then refused a reserved billboard site because the owner was scared of being sued. No further action was taken by the OEC or in a criminal court because Driehaus lost the election and withdraw his complaint, which raised the standing issue for the plaintiffs, although after the election Driehaus did file defamation claims against them.
The Supreme Court held that enforcement of the Ohio law caused a credible threat of harm to the plaintiffs’ political speech with Driehaus obtaining a probable cause finding (that could be viewed by voters as a final decision) without ever having to prove the falsity in a court of law. Additionally, a burden was imposed on the plaintiffs when they were forced to divert significant time and legal resources to respond to discovery requests before the OEC in the crucial days before Election Day. It was held the plaintiffs had standing to sue because “an allegation of future injury may suffice if the threatened injury is ‘certainly impending,’ or there is a ‘substantial risk’ that the harm will occur.” The law had been challenged in the lower courts as “unconstitutionally vague” and having a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech, but those courts held there was no “immediate threat” of injury.
This 1995 Ohio law makes it illegal to “post, publish, circulate, distribute or otherwise disseminate a false statement concerning a candidate in an election” and violators can be fined and/or sentenced to six months in prison (Ohio Election Law 3517.21). Complaints filed with the OEC must allege: (1) a statement to be false; (2) that the speaker knew the statement was false, or spoke with reckless disregard for the truth; and (3) that the statement was made with the intent of impacting the outcome of the election.
It’s shocking this Ohio law survived for two decades. While we all hope candidates remain truthful in campaigns, this law certainly restricts constitutionally protected political speech. No state should be allowed to set up arbitrary (as well as political or partisan) government “truth” panels to decide if campaign statements are false, especially if the law allows for criminal penalties. I don’t believe any government can fairly regulate whether campaign statements are true or false. Remember, the First Amendment case law grants political speech the highest protection possible.
I enjoyed reading a Cato Institute (a libertarian think tank in DC) amicus brief challenging the law. The entertaining political commentator P.J. O’Rourke drafted the brief with attorney Ilya Shapiro (see brief at: http://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/sba-list-merits-filed-brief.pdf), and here are excerpts from the introduction:
“I am not a crook.” “Read my lips: no new taxes!” “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” “Mission accomplished.” “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it.”
While George Washington may have been incapable of telling a lie, his successors have not had the same integrity. The campaign promise (and its subsequent violation), as well as disparaging statements about one’s opponent (whether true, mostly true, mostly not true, or entirely fantastic), are cornerstones of American democracy. Indeed, mocking and satire are as old as America, and if this Court doesn’t believe amici, it can ask Thomas Jefferson, “the son of a half-breed squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Or perhaps it should ponder, as Grover Cleveland was forced to, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa?” . . . After all, where would we be without the knowledge that Democrats are pinko-communist flag-burners who want to tax churches and use the money to fund abortions so they can use the fetal stem cells to create pot-smoking lesbian ATF agents who will steal all the guns and invite the UN to take over America? Voters have to decide whether we’d be better off electing Republicans, those hateful, assault-weapon-wielding maniacs who believe that George Washington and Jesus Christ incorporated the nation after a Gettysburg reenactment and that the only thing wrong with the death penalty is that it isn’t administered quickly enough to secular-humanist professors of Chicano studies.
Many campaign statements cannot easily be categorized as simply “true” or “false.” According to Politifact.com, President Obama’s claim that “if you like your health-care plan you can keep it” was true five years before it was named the “Lie of the Year.” . . . There is no lie that can be told about a politician that will not be more damaging to the liar once the truth is revealed. A crushing send-up on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report will do more to clean up political rhetoric than the Ohio Election Commission ever could.”
I can list many political charges I hear in campaigns about which thoughtful people can disagree. Is abortion murder? Does gun control reduce crime? Is the death penalty a human rights violation? Is fracking harmful to the environment? Does raising the minimum wage reduce entry level jobs? I have friends that can argue over these questions for hours. If one of these politically debatable issues was the subject of a complaint to the OEC, it would be forced to interject its own biases and political views into its decision, which could remarkably lead to a criminal prosecution and jail sentence. If this law existed in New York with our rough and tumble campaigns, you could be sure political partisans would file frivolous complaints with the commission attempting to harass and wound opposing candidates if a probable cause finding could be obtained, with the complaint then dropped after Election Day.
I believe the Ohio law (and similar laws in other states) violates the First Amendment of our Constitution. The decision about the truth of a candidate’s campaign statements must be left to the voters. This case was sent back to the federal district court, which will hopefully strike down this unconstitutional law soon.
James Maisano, Esq.