he U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday on a political free-speech case that began in southwest Ohio. For Ohio Public Radio, WKSU’s M.L. Schultze has more on a case centered on a political ad just about everybody agrees was false.
Can a state law prohibit lying in political ads?
It’s been a big question since 2010, when Democrat Steve Driehaus and Republican Steve Chabot squared off in one of the hottest congressional races in the country. An anti-abortion group called the Susan B. Anthony List rented a billboard accusing Driehaus of voting for taxpayer-funded abortion. What he’d voted for was the Affordable Care Act, and Driehaus complained the ad defamed him. The Ohio Elections Commission agreed and said the ad violated a law that’s been on the books since the 1970s.
Those arguing the billboard was protected speech include Susan B. Anthony and the American Civil Liberties Union. Caroline Lin is a former Cleveland State political scientist who now teaches at the University of Connecticut. She says the history of the U.S. Supreme Court suggests it is sympathetic to the free speech argument..
“Traditionally, the Supreme Court has supported the public – and therefore those political action committees," said Lin, "that is their expressing in a political opinion, the sharing of their information, sharing their ideas with the rest of the people in the society. Without that ability to share their opinion, ideas, information, the society may be disadvantaged from finding out more information about the democratic process”
But Lin notes that the high court may opt instead for a much narrower ruling. Driehaus lost the election and dropped his complaint. So Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine argues the Supreme Court shouldn’t be considering it. Then again – in an unusual step – he’s also filed a brief for the other side, saying the law is unconstitutional.
Lin predicts that if the court rules on the narrow procedural case, the argument will reach the high court in some other case. More than a dozen other state have similar laws.