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Can the Government Prevent Lying in Political Ads?

By Ed Brayton on January 17, 2014 in Civic Blog
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8102883_lThe Supreme Court last week granted cert in a case that involves the question of whether the government can prevent allegedly false speech in political ads or whether this is a violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Some details about the case:

The case, involving an anti-abortion group’s claim that Ohio’s False Statement Law violates free speech, will likely be argued in April, with a ruling announced during the last months of the Supreme Court’s term in May or June.

“We are thrilled at the opportunity to have our arguments heard,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, said in a press release Friday. “The Ohio Election Commission statute demonstrates complete disregard for the Constitutional right of citizens to criticize their elected officials.”

During the 2010 election cycle, Susan B. Anthony List accused then-Rep. Steven Driehaus (D-Ohio), who was running for reelection against Republican Steve Chabot, of endorsing taxpayer-funded abortions by voting for President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Driehaus complained to the state election commission that the group’s proposed billboard ads saying, “Shame on Steve Driehaus! Driehaus voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion,” were false, since federal law prohibits the use of taxpayer money for abortion funding. The state blocked the billboards.

Both the district and appeals courts dismissed the case and this is the appeal of those decisions. Now I know it sounds like an easy case: Of course you can’t lie in a political ad, right? It isn’t quite that simple. Allowing the government to decide what is and is not a political lie can be a dangerous idea. Would you trust a Republican administration with that power? It’s not difficult to imagine how easily that power could be misused for partisan purposes.

After spending several years touring the country as a stand up comedian, Ed Brayton tired of explaining his jokes to small groups of dazed illiterates and turned to writing as the most common outlet for the voices in his head. He has appeared on the Rachel Maddow Show and the Thom Hartmann Show, and is almost certain that he is the only person ever to make fun of Chuck Norris on C-SPAN. He regularly contributes to Civic Blog and posts daily at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. The above piece was originally puiblished there on January 14 2014.

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