Open Thread: Pro-life Group Fighting Speech-Stifling Ohio Law Before U.S. Supreme Court

Today attorneys for the pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List will appear before the Supreme Court regarding a challenge to an Ohio law which they charge chills free speech. This legal saga began when an embittered former Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) initiated a false advertising complaint against the organization for ads the List ran critical of Dreihaus, a pro-life Democrat, for his support of ObamaCare.

In Saturday's Wall Street Journal, Susan B. Anthony List attorneys Michael Carvin and Yaakov Roth explained the constitutional and practical case for why "Courts Should Stay Out of Political Fact-Checking." Read an excerpt (emphasis ours) below the page break and share your thoughts in the comments section and/or tell us what else is on your mind in this today's open thread.

 


 

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on April 22 in Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus, a case raising important constitutional questions about laws that purport to prohibit "false" political statements. At least 15 states, including Ohio—where this case originated—have such laws on the books, often carrying criminal penalties.

Some reporters have called this a lawsuit about the "right to lie." That is a tendentious and inaccurate depiction of what the case involves. The issue is not whether campaigns should lie. Of course they should not. Rather, the question is who should decide whether a political campaign advertisement is true—courts, wielding the power to impose fines or imprisonment, or the American people, wielding the power to elect or turf the competing candidate. The stakes for free speech and the democratic process are very high.

People often disagree about what is the "truth," particularly in the political context. While websites such as PolitiFact purport to fact-check claims by politicians, even it characterizes many statements as "half-true"—one-sided, perhaps, or simply open to reasonable interpretation. The problem with a law prohibiting "false" statements about candidates is that it threatens to chill free political discourse, by silencing speakers who believe they are speaking truth but are fearful of being subjected to burdensome, costly legal proceedings by their political adversaries.

Supreme Court Justices across the political spectrum are alert to the danger. In 2012 in United States v. Alvarez , the court threw out the conviction of a man who violated the federal Stolen Valor Act by falsely claiming to have been awarded the Medal of Honor. The court ruled that the First Amendment may protect even false statements in order to protect true statements.

As Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a concurring opinion, "criminal prosecution [of falsity] is particularly dangerous" in the "political arena," because it can "inhibit the speaker from making true statements, thereby 'chilling' a kind of speech that lies at the First Amendment's heart."

Justice Samuel Alito agreed in his dissenting opinion, warning that "any attempt by the state to penalize purportedly false speech" in political contexts "would present a grave and unacceptable danger of suppressing truthful speech."

Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus presents a vivid example of this "chilling" phenomenon. The Susan B. Anthony List and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes—the two advocacy organizations that are petitioners in this case—wanted to criticize Rep. Steve Driehaus (D., Ohio), for his 2010 vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act. The groups believe that the law includes taxpayer-funded abortion because (among other things) it subsidizes insurance plans that may include abortion coverage.

That is a perfectly reasonable characterization of the Affordable Care Act. But Mr. Driehaus argued that the law would not use federal dollars to subsidize abortion because insurers were required to "segregate" federal subsidy dollars from funds used to pay most abortion providers. Since money is fungible, that segregation rule was an accounting gimmick. Nonetheless, the Ohio Elections Commission, a panel of political appointees, voted along partisan lines that this criticism was probably "false" and thus could subject the groups to fines or even imprisonment under Ohio's false-statement law.

While the Susan B. Anthony List organization continued to press its message through radio ads, the two advocacy groups were unable to fully disseminate their message during the 2010 midterm campaign or subsequent elections. A billboard company, for example, refused to post their message after threats of legal action.

The relevant question is thus not whether there is a constitutional "right to lie," but rather whether the state may force citizens to defend the "truth" of their political critiques before bureaucrats who may well have been appointed by the politicians being criticized. Such a regime imposes substantial burdens on core political speech and therefore chills robust political debate.

The premise of the First Amendment is that the people should decide what is "true" and what is "false" in the political arena, and punish or reward political candidates at the ballot box. Political fact-checking is not a task for courts of law. Criminal penalties should not hang over the heads of speakers who disagree with their version of political "truth."

NB Staff
NB Staff