The Los Angeles Times reports:
The Supreme Court next week will consider for the first time whether states may enforce laws that make it a crime to knowingly publish false statements about political candidates.
The justices will hear an antiabortion group's free-speech challenge to an Ohio law that was invoked in 2010 by then-Rep. Steve Driehaus, a Democrat. He had voted for President Obama's healthcare law and was facing a tough race for reelection.
The antiabortion group Susan B. Anthony List launched a campaign to unseat Driehaus, preparing to run billboard ads saying, "Shame on Steve Driehaus! Driehaus voted for taxpayer-funded abortion."
The statement was false, Driehaus said, since under the law no federal funds can be spent to pay for abortions. He threatened to sue the billboard company, which decided against running the ad. Then he complained to the Ohio Elections Commission, which found "probable cause" that the statement was false.
Before a hearing could be convened before the full commission, Driehaus lost his reelection bid and withdrew his complaint.
But the antiabortion group pressed ahead and is urging the Supreme Court to clear the way for a constitutional attack on the Ohio law as well as similar measures in 15 other states.
The justices are not expected to rule on the 1st Amendment issue at this time. Instead, justices are being asked to decide whether these laws can be challenged as unconstitutional even if no one is successfully prosecuted.
The case has prompted a lively debate over whether the law can separate truth from lies in election campaigns.
Washington attorney Michael Carvin, representing the antiabortion group, said the 1st Amendment protects broad free speech during political campaigns and frowns on interference from the government. He calls the Ohio measure a "speech suppressive" law that "inserts state bureaucrats and judges into political debates and charges them with separating truth from oft-alleged 'lies.'"
He said the state commission receives several dozen complaints each year and warned that the law gives government bureaucrats the power to sway a close race simply by saying a complaint has merit.
The Ohio law says violators can be prosecuted and punished by up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. But Carvin and other election law experts say they are not aware of any successful prosecutions.
He told the court that 15 states have similar laws. They are Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Wisconsin and West Virginia.
He said these laws were "almost certainly unconstitutional." . . .