Ohio’s “truth” laws and the Susan B. Anthony List trial

A federal court recently ruled that a defamation suit filed by former Ohio Rep. Steven Driehaus against the Susan B. Anthony List can move to trial.

Former Rep. Driehaus sued SBA List alleging that billboards they provided during campaign season claiming that he voted in favor of taxpayer-funded abortions constituted defamation and led to a “loss of livelihood.”  Representative Driehaus considers himself pro-life, but voted in favor of the federal health care overhaul which, according to SBA List, did not include provisions explicitly prohibiting taxpayer-funded abortions.  SBA List’s claim against Driehaus stems from a study by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which also took the stance that the bill did not provide adequate measures to prevent certain insurance pools with access to federal funds from paying for abortion services.  Driehaus claims that current statutes and an executive order fully prevent taxpayer money from going towards abortions, which SBA list disputes.

The complaint made it to the Ohio Elections Commission, which concluded that there was probable cause that SBA List violated Ohio’s draconian false statements law.  For those of you who do not live in Ohio, it may seem odd that a state panel exists for determining the validity of campaign ads.  In some regards, the panel is similar to FactCheck.org.  The panel, however, has the ability to threaten citizens with fines and criminal charges if they don’t toe the government line on their version of the “truth.”Although he ultimately dropped the complaint, Driehaus then filed a defamation suit.Emily Buchanan, the executive director of SBA list, made this statement to Fox News:

“The claim of defamation is outrageous. Driehaus is a public official, and we should be able to criticize him,” she told FoxNews.com. “And all of this debate should be taking place in the public square. A court or a judge should not be determining” a dispute over abortion policy. 

As a public figure, Driehaus had the means to defend himself from criticism he may have viewed as misleading.  Driehaus’ complaint should never have made it this far; after all, what is the point of having the First Amendment when state law mandates that it only applies when making government-approved statements?  Politicians have the luxury of a public forum to convince people of their particular version of the “truth” and to explain claims made by their opponents.  However, that forum should not include “truth-panels” and the courts. 

 

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