Microphones are set up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on Jan. 13, 2014.
Larry Downing/Reuters

Supreme Court weighs in on the legality of lying

Four years ago, a far-right anti-abortion group called the Susan B. Anthony List had an idea on how best to attack then-Rep. Steven Driehaus (D-Ohio) – ostensibly an ally of the organization, since he opposed reproductive rights.
 
The plan was simple: the Susan B. Anthony List would sponsor a billboard accusing Driehaus of endorsing “taxpayer-funded abortion” when he voted to pass the Affordable Care Act. In reality, the ACA does not allow taxpayer-funded abortion, which created an interesting legal fight – Ohio has a law that prohibits campaign attacks that are deliberately false. In this case, the state election commission agreed that there was “probable cause” that the Susan B. Anthony List intended to lie to the public.
 
As a practical matter, the controversy eventually went away soon after – the group never actually put up the billboard and Driehaus ended up losing his re-election bid. But there was a lingering legal question: is Ohio’s law legal? And can the opponents of abortion rights challenge its constitutionality?
 
My msnbc colleague Adam Serwer has followed this one closely and reported this morning on the Supreme Court’s take.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that an anti-abortion group could challenge an Ohio law barring knowingly false statements in political campaigns. […]
 
The case was comically lopsided from the beginning – not a single amicus brief was filed on behalf of the state of Ohio, and even liberal groups conceded that allowing the state to arbitrate truth or falsity in political campaigns was troubling.
The entirety of the ruling is online here (pdf).
 
When Driehaus lost in 2010, the issue appeared moot, but the Susan B. Anthony List’s broader plans had not changed. The far-right organization made no secret of the fact that it intended to push similar attack ads in the future.
 
Which led to today’s ruling.
 
Note, the Supreme Court did not strike down Ohio’s controversial law. Rather, it gave the Susan B. Anthony List a green light to file a lawsuit challenging the law on First Amendment grounds. That suit stands a pretty good chance of success, but it still has to be litigated.
 
Though the Ohio law has few defenders anywhere – the notion of a state commission regulating political speech is a tough pill to swallow – today’s outcome was not necessarily a no-brainer. Can a group challenge a statute even though no one has been prosecuted under that statute? Today, the justices answered in the affirmative.
 
The ruling was unanimous.
 
For more background, Adam published a couple of related pieces in April.
 

Ohio and Supreme Court

Supreme Court weighs in on the legality of lying