The typical American political campaign stretches, bends, twists and otherwise abuses the truth. The question nibbled at Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court is: Does the truth need a government minder to protect it from its abusers?
While the court didn’t squarely address the matter with its ruling in Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus, it allowed a constitutional test of an Ohio law banning political lies to go forward.
Here are the basics: In 2010, Susan B. Anthony List sought to put up a billboard critical of U.S. Rep. Steve Driehaus, D-Ohio, and his vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act. The billboard was to read, “Shame on Steve Driehaus! Driehaus voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion.”
To believe SBA List’s claim requires eye-squinting and an extra-sharp knife to slice the cheese very thinly. The anti-abortion activists claimed Obamacare funds some types of abortion and Driehaus voted for the law. Rep. Driehaus correctly countered that a presidential executive order explicitly banned using federal funds for abortion except for instances of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is in danger.
The congressman took his case to an Ohio board that oversees enforcement of a state law banning knowingly or recklessly false election campaigning. On a 2-1 vote, the board sided with Driehaus. The billboard company refused to put up the message against the congressman.
After losing in the November 2010 election, Driehaus dropped his complaint against SBA List. Not so fast, said representatives for Susan B. Anthony List. They wished to challenge the state law, claiming it put a chill on free speech.
In Monday’s decision, the Supreme Court ruled by a 9-0 decision that SBA List’s legal challenge to the Ohio law can proceed in federal court.
If we had to make a guess, we’d suggest that eventually this law and the others like it in more than a dozen states won’t survive a First Amendment challenge. The court will likely rule, to put it bluntly, that political deception and outright lying are protected forms of speech.
When and if that happens, Americans will have to rely on themselves to be informed by another hallmark of the First Amendment — a free and hard-charging press.