The US Supreme Court ruled yesterday that anti-choice group Susan B. Anthony List (SBA) could challenge an Ohio state law prohibiting “false statements” in political campaign speech.
The Ohio law makes it a crime to offer false statements during an election campaign. Under the law, any person who posts, publishes, or distributes “a false statement” about a political candidate, either “knowing” the statement to be false “or with reckless disregard” of whether the statement was true or not could be punished with up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $5,000 for the first violation. Over a dozen states have laws criminalizing false political campaign speech.
SBA, joined by the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), attempted to challenge the Ohio law in federal court but both the district court and the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit determined that the challenge could not go forward in the courts because neither group had suffered a concrete injury under the law. The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision means that the case can now go forward.
SBA sought to challenge the law after the Ohio Elections Commission found probable cause that the group had made false statements about a political candidate during the 2010 election cycle. SBA issued a press release and planned to display a billboard stating that former Congressman Steve Driehaus, then running for office, had voted for “taxpayer-funded abortion” by voting for the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Driehaus filed a complaint with the Commission but withdrew his complaint after he lost the November election. SBA then filed a complaint in federal court to challenge the Ohio statute on First Amendment grounds. COAST filed a separate suit, which was then consolidated with the SBA case, alleging that it wanted to publish similar materials but feared prosecution.
The Supreme Court, in allowing the case to go forward, found that neither SBA nor COAST had to wait until they were prosecuted under the law before challenging its constitutionality. It was sufficient that both groups intended to continue making statements about abortion and the ACA in future election cycles and that these statements would open them up to proceedings by the Elections Commission and possible criminal prosecution.
The Supreme Court made no finding yesterday on whether the Ohio law is constitutional or whether SBA’s statements on “taxpayer-funded abortion” were in fact false. The decision only means that the case against the Ohio law can be litigated in court. This is not the first time, however, that anti-choice activists have attempted to obfuscate the ACA and abortion.
Media Resources: Supreme Court of the United States; SCOTUS Blog 6/16/14; Feminist Majority Press Release 1/29/14