A controversy over political billboards in Ohio showcases a crystal clear example of how “reforming” politics by regulating political speech is a farce.
Yesterday, the Ohio Elections Commission agreed to allow a complaint by Rep. Steve Driehaus, a Democrat, against the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life women’s group, to move forward.
A three-member panel of the Commission found probable cause that SBA List violated Ohio’s false statements law by falsely claiming in an ad that Driehaus “voted for taxpayer-funded abortion,” as the Weekly Standard reported. The vote was 2-to-1; a Republican member voted against advancing the complaint while a Democratic member and an independent member voted to throw a mid-October political bomb into the race.
“The information is factually untrue and this is just another attempt by Steve Chabot’s supporters to spread false information,” Driehaus whined to The Cincinnati Enquirer.
According to someone involved in the case, Driehaus’ lawyers today presented SBA List with an expansive request for document discovery going back two years on topics as broad as all internal communications regarding federal legislation (16 document type requests, including documents related to Driehaus, communications with allied groups on health care issues, and all correspondence with congressional staff and Obama Administration officials).
Driehaus also seeks to depose officials with the Family Research Council, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the National Right to Life Committee. NRLC is not a party to the case but filed a 23-page affidavit supporting SBA List.
Catholics United and various “local faith leaders” contend the health care bill does not allow taxpayer funding of abortion. Prominent pro-life groups such as SBA List and the NRLC adamantly disagree. Sounds like an issue for the voters or the media, right?
Wrong. Outside of Ohio, one might find it odd that a state government panel exists to determine what Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert terms the “truthiness” of campaign ads. It’s sort of like FactCheck.gov-except a government official doesn’t just fisk your statement, he threatens you with up to six months in jail and fines of up to $5,000 for making political comments.
The SBA List forcefully defends its view on the abortion issue in President Obama’s health care overhaul. President Majorie Dannenfelser also makes a broader point about such truth panels:
The larger problem here is a public official’s attempt to use a criminal statue to silence legitimate debate on his record. The proper place for public policy debate is in the public square, not in an Elections Commission or criminal court. The SBA List will see this process through to the end and vigorously defend our position that the health care reform bill, supported by Steve Driehaus, allows for taxpayer funding of abortion. Moreover, we will use every vehicle possible within our First Amendment rights to communicate this message to the people of Congressman Steve Driehaus’ district between now and the hearing.
As CCP vice president Steve Hoersting noted in a June op-ed for The Columbus Dispatch, such complaints are often lodged in the heat of a campaign to be used as political fodder.
It is hard to defend the idea that candidates should not have to tell the truth, but in politics, few claims are objectively true or false. One person’s distortion is another’s truth; one person’s obfuscation is another’s context; one person’s exaggeration is another’s emphasis; what one person calls “misleading” another often considers revealing.
Ohio’s false-statements law treats the state’s voters like children, unable to decide for themselves whether candidates are being honest or spinning the truth. The commission, obligated to enforce the misguided law, often issues rulings that border on the absurd.
In 2000, the commission decided that a candidate for Congress could not lawfully describe himself as an “Independent Republican.” Phil Harmon initially filed as a candidate for the Republican primary but then withdrew and ran as an independent. “There is no such party affiliation as an Independent Republican and any implication that there is such would be improper,” the commission decided.
In 2005, the commission ruled that a candidate who runs as an independent could not tell people that he was a “registered Democrat” or a “lifelong Democrat,” even though it was true.
In 1999, the commission ruled that a candidate could not use the term “re-elect” when seeking election after a city changed its wards. “[T]his is true even if you take into consideration that some of the same constituents may have been re-apportioned into the new ward.” the commission wrote. In 2002, the commission updated its logic in ruling that candidates for the General Assembly could use the word “re-elect” after redistricting as long as they didn’t specify what district they were running in.
While such trivia is the mainstay of the commission, it frequently weighs in on disputed facts, siding with one side or another even though reasonable people might disagree. Such decisions often are made in the heat of the campaign. Smart attorneys in Columbus know how to time complaints to secure a preliminary finding from the commission just before Election Day, so that the opponent will have no time to respond-and no final hearing will be held until after the election. [emphasis added]
In this case, after allegedly threatening billboard company Lamar with inclusion in the complaint unless it agreed to not run the ads in question, Driehaus’ campaign nearly perfectly timed the complaint. A full hearing before the seven-member Commission—the next step after the “preliminary finding”—won’t occur until Oct. 28 at the earliest. But that schedule simply follows the Commission’s “normal practice” and isn’t assured.
By the way, FactCheck.org’s Brooks Jackson spent about 1,500 words on an earlier iteration of this issue. His verdict: [W]e judge that the president goes too far when he calls the statements that government would be funding abortions “fabrications.” Debate over the final version of the bill, including the “Stupak amendment,” did not end this discussion among policy observers, but it prompted another FactCheck.org opus from Jackson, again parsing the issue in 1,100-some words.
The Ohio Elections Commission seems to assume people are too stupid to determine political questions for themselves and need the government to tell them what is true and false.
Whatever one’s view on abortion is, reasoned debate in a public forum rather than silencing opponents through government truth commissions is the best policy. Anyone who disagrees is a liar.