Court axes law banning campaign lies

Federal court rules Ohio law violates free speech.

A federal appeals court in Cincinnati Wednesday may have delivered the death knell to a 42-year Ohio election law which prohibited candidates or independent political organizations from lying in their campaigns.


In a unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 2014 decision by U.S. District Judge Timothy Black that the law violated political free speech guaranteed by the Constitution.

In its 12-page ruling, the court of appeals concluded “Ohio’s political false-statements laws target speech at the core of First Amendment protections—political speech.”

The decision was widely expected after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 2014 that two independent organizations from Cincinnati — Susan B. Anthony List and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, known as COAST — could challenge the constitutionality of the state law before Black.

While the Supreme Court did not actually rule on the law itself, during oral arguments in 2014 it became clear the justices had deep doubts about the Ohio law’s constitutionality.

The Ohio Elections Commission could ask the full court of appeals to hear the case or appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. But given the justices’ ruling in 2014, there is little chance the state would prevail before the high court.

“I truly do believe this is the last stop in the railroad,” said Christopher Finney, a Cincinnati attorney who challenged the law. “It’s a big, big day for speech.”

Dan Tierney, a spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, said, “We will be considering the options with the client. It is too early to definitively comment on a possible further appeal.”

The case erupted during the 2010 congressional campaign when Susan B. Anthony List wanted to pay for a billboard advertisement accusing then-U.S. Rep. Steve Driehaus, D-Cincinnati, of supporting the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions when he voted for the 2010 health-care law, known as Obamacare.

Driehaus’ attorney threatened a lawsuit; the billboard owner refused to post the advertisement. Driehaus filed a complaint with the elections commission, which found probable cause that the advertisement violated the election law.

Driehaus dropped the complaint after he was defeated for re-election by Republican Steve Chabot. However, Susan B. Anthony List and COAST sued in federal court.