Ban on Political Lies|Struck Down in Ohio

     (CN) – Two conservative groups persuaded a federal judge to strike down Ohio’s laws against spreading false information during an election.
     “Lies have no place in the political arena and serve no purpose other than to undermine the integrity of the democratic process. The problem is that, at times, there is no clear way to determine whether a political statement is a lie or the truth,” U.S. District Judge Timothy Black wrote Thursday. “What is certain, however, is that we do not want the government (i.e., the Ohio Elections Commission) deciding what is political truth – for fear that the government might persecute those who criticize it. Instead, in a democracy, the voters should decide. And thus today the Court must decide whether Ohio’s political false-statements laws are the least restrictive means of ensuring fair elections. The short answer is no.” (Emphasis in original)
     The ruling comes in a challenge brought by Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending & Taxes (COAST).
     Judge Black, an appointee of President Barack Obama, noted that the groups deny that they are “arguing for a right to lie.”
     “We’re arguing that we have a right not to have the truth of our political statements be judged by the government,” they said, according to the 25-page ruling.
     Ohio’s political false-statements laws, Sections 3517.21(B)(9)-(10), carry the possibility of misdemeanor charges against those who make a false statement about a candidate or election.
     SBA List found itself before the Ohio Elections Commission in 2010 after U.S. Rep. Steve Driehaus complained about the group’s billboard stating “Shame on Steve Driehaus! Driehaus voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion.”
     This election, the group plans to criticize another Ohio Democrat, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, because she voted for Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Kaptur has long opposed abortion, but SBA List and COAST contend that the ACA funds abortion and will likely face scrutiny under the Ohio.
     Though Judge Black had originally dismissed the challenge and the 6th affirmed, the U.S. Supreme Court revived the conservative groups’ case in June.
     Black heard oral arguments on cross-motions for summary judgment, and the plaintiffs’ motion for an injunction, on Sept. 4, days after the 8th Circuit struck down a similar law in Minnesota.
     In siding with SBA List and COAST on Thursday, Black said that the Ohio Elections Commission was not positioned to be the arbiter of truth in political speech.
     “It is entirely possible that a candidate could make a truthful statement, yet the OEC would determine a few days before the election that the statement is false, penalizing the candidate for speaking the truth and chilling future truthful speech,” Black wrote.
     Black also noted that the law had been “exploited” as a device to distract political opponents.
     “Indeed, when a complaint is filed, a probable cause hearing must be held and there is no system for weeding out frivolous complaints,” he wrote.
     Another U.S. Supreme Court case upon which Black relied for his decision was U.S. v. Alvarez , which contemplates the Orwellian results that come from criminalizing lies about military honors.
     “The remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true,” that 2012 decision states.
     Black also quoted the character of Frank Underwood from the Netflix series “House of Cards,” who said, “There’s no better way to overcome a trickle of doubt than with a flood of naked truth.”

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