Elections Complaint Law Would Chill Political Speech
COLUMBUS – The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio will testify today before the Ohio House State Government and Elections Committee opposing House Bill 315. The legislation will dramatically increase the penalties levied by the Ohio Elections Commission (OEC) for “false speech” complaints. Under current Ohio law, individuals can file complaints with the OEC if they believe another candidate or organization is using “false” information during an election. HB 315 would raise the criminal penalty to a felony level and increase the fine from $5,000 to as much as $100,000.
“Free speech should not be in the hands of bureaucrats,” said ACLU of Ohio Associate Director Gary Daniels. “Unfortunately, this law would take an already flawed system and pile harsh criminal and financial penalties for expressing political beliefs.”
“Under this law, the Ohio Elections Commission would wield tremendous power that could be exploited by politicians seeking to silence their opponents. The possibility of a felony conviction and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and court fines would be enough for any blogger or activist to think twice before expressing her views,” added Daniels. “The OEC is not a court of law, and allowing them to determine if speech is true or not only opens the door to further court challenges to the constitutionality of this system.”
The ACLU also noted in its testimony that the current OEC complaint system may be abused by politicians because the commission may find ‘probable cause’ that their opponent’s statement is false. However, that is not a final determination. In addition, the process if so long and complex that the final ruling in a complaint often is made after the election — effectively silencing the group when the speech was relevant.
“In politics, it is rare that any statement is black and white. Truth is often subjective to the listener, but it certainly should not be subject to the whims of an appointed political body,” concluded Daniels. “Not only should this legislation be scrapped, but our elected leaders should take a serious look at the entire system, and its effect on political speech.”
The House State Government and Elections Committee will be at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 15, 2012 in Room 116 of the Statehouse.