Supreme Court Justices Question False Campaign Speech Law

Wednesday, 23 Apr 2014 08:44 AM

By Michael Mullins

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Supreme Court justices expressed their doubts over an Ohio state law that would prohibit false statements being made during a political campaign.

The Ohio law allows candidates and other citizens to file a complaint for allegedly false slogans, prompting a state election commission hearing and public scrutiny of advocacy groups' or individuals' claims in the middle of a campaign, Reuters reported.

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The concern, which has apparently been shared by political factions across the ideological spectrum, is that such a law would impede free speech. This is the case especially with regard to the time-honored tradition of political mudslinging, in which negative descriptions of one's opponent could at times result in a twisting of the facts.

According to The Associated Press, the high court is not expected to rule on the constitutionality of the law yet because the current question before the high court is a preliminary one: Can the law be challenged right away, or can it only be challenged after a state finds a politician guilty of lying?

Despite the limitations of the case, judges did not refrain from offering their opinions of the law during Tuesday's proceedings.

Justice Anthony Kennedy described the law as "a serious First Amendment concern with a state law that requires you to come before a commission to justify what you are going to say."

Justice Stephen Breyer told Ohio state attorney Eric Murphy agreed.

"What's the harm? I can't speak, that's the harm," he said.

Chief Justice Roberts pointed out that the law would have a chilling effect on third parties, such as TV stations or billboard owners, which would likely be intimidated by such a statute.

"The slightest whiff of this is going to be legal trouble," he said.

The Ohio law in some respects is similar to the United States v. Alvarez case of 2012 in which the Supreme Court struck down a U.S. law that made it a crime to lie about military honors.

During the hearing, Washington lawyer Michael Carvin, who opposed the law, argued Roberts' point by claiming that such a law would "do exactly what (the) Alvarez (case) warned against, inserting state bureaucrats and judges into political debates and charging them with separating truth from oft-alleged campaign 'lies.'"

In defense of the law, Ohio state lawyers countered by claiming any future commission action or harm to a speaker is purely speculative.

Of the more than 500 false statement claims that have been brought under the Ohio law between 2001 and 2010, just five cases have been referred to a prosecutor. Of the cases, three resulted in plea agreements, Murphy told the justices.

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