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Lanae Erickson of the centrist Washington think tank Third Way agreed that the Ohio law - a criminal statute - seems “unreasonable.”

Ms. Erickson, deputy director of Third Way’s Culture Institute, said convicting the Susan B. Anthony List for its attacks on Mr. Driehaus would be like prosecuting former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin for her claim that President Obama’s health care reform would create “death panels.”

“This really isn’t the way we want our political discourse to operate,” she said.

About a dozen states have false statement elections laws similar to Ohio’s. Although some legal analysts question their constitutionality, the laws’ high legal standards mean guilty verdicts are difficult to obtain.

Speech critical of public officials has strong protection under the First Amendment, said Daniel Tokaji, an authority on elections law at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

“To sue for defamation, for example, you’d have to prove not only that the statement is false but that it was a knowingly false statement made with reckless disregard for the truth,” he said. “This is a really high standard and from a practical matter very difficult to meet.”

The Susan B. Anthony List says the case could set a national precedent.

“A win here will overturn a bad law that is likely to spur legal challenges in other states,” Ms. Dannenfelser said.

Debate over language

The Susan B. Anthony List’s claim that the health care reform law allows for taxpayer-funded abortions has been widely disputed.

“It doesn’t,” Ms. Erickson said. “So I don’t think that’s a good argument for them.”

Jessica Arons, director of the Women’s Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning Washington think tank, said the group is “playing very fast and loose with their language.”

“They really have to make some convoluted arguments to claim that the bill funds abortions” with taxpayer money, she said. “It in no way shape or form in the traditional sense funds abortions with taxpayer money.”

Abortions are legal under the bill, but can be paid only from a separate account with private insurance premiums, with the money kept separately from government funds. President Obama also signed an executive order last year that affirmed long-standing restrictions on taxpayer-financed abortion.

Mr. Driehaus‘ defense says he is “well known for opposing abortion” and worked to ensure that health care law didn’t provide for taxpayer-funded abortions.

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