“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.”
With these words, Federal District Judge Timothy S. Black summarizes the thrust of his September 11 order permanently blocking Ohio’s false political speech laws. Before these laws were blocked, “false” statements made about candidates during political campaigns could be punished—and the government was allowed to determine what was false.
This case started in 2010 when Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, wanted to post a billboard critical of then-Ohio-House candidate Steve Driehaus. The billboard would have read, “Shame on Steve Driehaus! Driehaus voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion.” After Driehaus complained to the Ohio Elections Commission, the state investigated and determined that SBA List likely violated Ohio's ban on false political speech —a determination that could have led to criminal prosecution.
The decision striking down Ohio's false political speech laws is an important win for free speech in Ohio. It comes after the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to the district court, telling the court that SBA List could challenge the law.
Judge Black’s decision is not about whether groups are allowed to lie in political campaigns. It's about whether government has the authority to decide between truth and lies in the fog of politics. In this case, the court affirmed that government does not have that authority.
What’s false and what’s true is not always clear, especially when politics and ideology are involved. But in a democracy, it’s up to us—not the government—to decide for ourselves.