ACLU Challenges Law Prohibiting False Speech Against Candidates
CINCINNATI- The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed a friend-of-the-court brief today in the case Susan B. Anthony List v. Rep. Steve Driehaus, et.al. before the Federal District Court for Southern Ohio. The case originated from a complaint filed by Rep. Driehaus against the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA) after they announced plans to erect billboards criticizing the Congressman. Rep. Driehaus contended that the billboards contained false information and filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission. SBA filed suit in federal court arguing the state law against false statements about a candidate is unconstitutional and seeking an injunction to halt the proceedings before the Ohio Elections Commission.
The ACLU’s brief supports the SBA, and contends that Ohio law unconstitutionally restricts the group’s First Amendment rights to criticize elected officials. The law prohibits groups from publishing “false” ads, but allows the government to determine whether the speech is false.
ACLU of Ohio Legal Director James Hardiman said, “The right to dissent is foundational to our democracy. By allowing the government to be the final arbitrator of what speech is acceptable, we open the door for those who are critical of elected officials to be silenced.”
“Speech is rarely black and white — oftentimes whether a statement is true or false may be a matter of opinion,” Hardiman added. “If the government silences one side of the debate, the public is less informed and others may be fearful of criticizing elected officials. The answer to unpopular speech is not less, but more speech.”
The Susan B. Anthony List is a national political group whose mission is to eliminate abortion in the U.S., particularly by supporting anti-choice legislators.
The SBA’s billboards were to say, “Shame on Steve Driehaus! Driehaus voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion.”
“Election season gives Americans from a variety of political viewpoints an opportunity to express their opinions. Free speech must not be at the whim of officials who may disagree or question its accuracy. Instead, those who differ should speak out and provide information so voters may be as educated as possible,” concluded Hardiman.
Update 10.29.10 Judge Timothy Black of the Federal District Court of Southern Ohio denied the Susan B. Anthony List’s request for a temporary restraining order that would allow them to post the billboards. Judge Black’s decision was not based on the merits of the group’s free speech concerns, but rather because he believes the matter is still pending before the Ohio Elections Commission. SBA List appealed, but the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed his ruling.
Read the Federal District Court Ruling
Read the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling