A federal judge struck down Ohio’s campaign truth squad Thursday, issuing a significant First Amendment decision that pushes the state out of the business of trying to referee “political truth” in campaign advertising.
In an opinion that cited authorities ranging from the Supreme Court to the “House of Cards” character Frank Underwood, federal District Court Judge Timothy S. Black said Americans should be free to battle out their political ideas without a government overseer ruling whether what they say is true.
“We do not want the government (i.e., the Ohio Elections Commission) deciding what is political truth — for fear that the government might persecute those who criticize it,” Judge Black wrote in his opinion. “Instead, in a democracy, the voters should decide.”
The ruling came the same day that the Republicans in the U.S. Senate filibustered to block a proposed constitutional amendment that would have given Congress and the states powers to restrict election spending by political candidates and to outright ban political spending by corporations.
Democrats had pushed the constitutional amendment in part to clamp down on what they say is a flood of false attacks paid for by wealthy conservative businessmen.
In the Ohio case, Judge Black’s ruling closes out a four-year-old lawsuit that began when the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life political group, wanted to post billboards accusing an incumbent U.S. House Democratic lawmaker of having voted to support government funding for abortion because he voted for Obamacare.
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Then-Rep. Steve Driehaus vehemently disputed that connection, arguing Obamacare didn’t pay for abortions.
He challenged the billboards under an Ohio law that declared it illegal to publish or broadcast “a false statement concerning the voting record” of a candidate. The law also gives the power to decide truth and falsehood to the state elections commission.
Judge Black, an Obama appointee to the bench, spotted several problems with the law.
He said some candidates have figured out ways to manipulate the system and “silence” their political opponents by filing frivolous complaints, which force the opponents to spend money and time fighting before the commission. He also said there’s no urgency on the commission to make quick decisions, which means groups can be silenced just as a campaign is hitting a key time.
But he said the biggest objection is that in political speech, it’s not always possible to tell truth and falsehood — and that judgment should be left to voters, not the government.
He quoted Netflix’s “House of Cards” show in making his ruling: “The more modern recitation of this longstanding and fundamental principle of American law was recently articulated by Frank Underwood in ‘House of Cards’: ‘There’s no better way to overpower a trickle of doubt than with a flood of naked truth.’ “
A spokesman said neither Attorney General Mike DeWine nor the lawyers who defended the election commission had a comment on the ruling.
The Supreme Court earlier this year had ruled that the SBA List had standing to sue, which allowed the case to continue.
“After four years and a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court, today we finally have a victory for free speech,” said SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser.
Last week a federal appeals court issued a similar ruling against a Minnesota law that tried to weed out false political ads.
Meanwhile, in Washington on Thursday, Democrats saw their attempt to amend the Constitution to limit campaign speech die at the hands of a GOP filibuster.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had pushed the amendment as a way to combat what he said was a flood of false ads attacking Democratic senators and paid for by wealthy conservative businessmen.
Republicans countered that if the amendment were to succeed — requiring a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate, and three-fourths of states to ratify it — it would have been the first changes in history to the First Amendment.