Are false statements about political candidates a criminal offense? According to an Ohio law which is the subject of an upcoming Supreme Court case, the answer is "yes."
The Supreme Court will consider a challenge next week to an Ohio law that prohibits an individual or group from knowingly or recklessly making false statements in political campaigns. The case, Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus, was filed last August after conservative anti-abortion group the Susan B. Anthony List attempted to launch a billboard campaign in 2010 against former Rep. Steve Driehaus, a Democrat, who ended up losing his re-election bid.
The billboard would have claimed that Driehaus supported taxpayer-funded abortions because of his support for the Affordable Care Act. Driehaus appealed to the Ohio Elections Commission, invoking the Ohio law that barred false campaign statements, and the advertising company that owned the billboard space refused to rent it to the Susan B. Anthony List.
The Susan B. Anthony List then challenged the state law, but a federal judge dismissed the challenge in 2011 because "the billboards were never erected and the Ohio Election Commission never made a final ruling on whether they may have violated the law," according to The Cincinnati Enquirer.
"The Ohio Election Commission statute demonstrates complete disregard for the Constitutional right of people to criticize their elected officials."'
The question the Supreme Court justices will consider is whether the Ohio law violates the First Amendment, which the Susan B. Anthony List argues it does. "The Ohio Election Commission statute demonstrates complete disregard for the Constitutional right of people to criticize their elected officials," SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a press release last year, adding, "Driehaus’ original complaint should have never been enabled in the first place. The law must go."
Driehaus argues that the Susan B. Anthony List's false billboard would have constituted defamation, and that their claims resulted in a "loss of livelihood." His appeal to the Ohio Election Commission, he said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press, was a necessity.
"Not every candidate has millions of dollars to spend on TV ads, and it's difficult to get the truth out, especially when constituents are bombarded with messages," Driehaus said.
Ohio is one of 17 states with such laws -- none of which distinguish defamatory statements of fact from non-defamatory statements of fact, according to a pending Supreme Court petition regarding the law in Minnesota.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus in June.