The age-old practice of mudslinging and false accusations during political campaigns is safe for the time being, as the Supreme Court on Monday unanimously ruled that an anti-abortion group can proceed with a challenge against an Ohio law that made such actions a crime.
The decision, a victory for the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, put similar laws in at least 15 other states in jeopardy, as it raises concerns about whether they can survive complaints that they violate First Amendment free speech rights.
The justices didn’t directly rule on the constitutionality of the law but instead sent the case back to a lower court.
The case brought into conflict two deeply held constitutional values: the right of open and unlimited speech, particularly in a political realm, and the notion of protecting the truth — especially when a person's character is maligned.
Justice Clarence Thomas, in writing the opinion for the high court, suggested the Ohio law has chilled political speech because individuals and interest groups are worried they could be censured or even face criminal charges.
“The threat of future enforcement of the [Ohio] false statement statute is substantial,” he wrote.
Thomas added that under the law, the target of a false statement complaint may be “forced to divert significant time and resources to hire legal counsel … in the crucial days leading up to an election.”
The case centered on a dispute between former Rep. Steve Driehaus and the Susan B. Anthony List, which waged an aggressive attack on the Ohio Democrat's failed re-election bid in 2010.
The Ohio Democrat filed a complaint with state election officials that the signs were illegal under Ohio’s "false statements" law. The billboard company, not wanting to be added to the complaint, refused to put up the signs.
The Susan B. Anthony List challenged the state law governing false claims as unconstitutional, saying it violated its First Amendment free-speech rights. The group said that allowing a state agency to determine what can and cannot be said during political campaigns amounts to a de facto "Ministry of Truth."
But Driehaus said the group’s charge that Obamacare leads to federally funded abortions was wrong and accused the group of costing him his livelihood and his job in Congress. He said the the Ohio law is needed "to call people into account when spreading malicious lies."
Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser called Monday’s decision a “step toward victory for the freedom of speech.”
“The truth or falsity of political speech should be judged by voters, not government bureaucrats,” she said.
The conservative group had a curious array of allies for the case, as many liberal groups sided with them, saying they were troubled by state laws that try to impose free speech limits.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which often identifies with liberal causes, filed an amicus brief on behalf of the group, calling the Ohio law “vague and overbroad" and that it has "chilled" free speech.