SCOTUS OKs challenge to Ohio law banning campaign untruths

by Walter Olson on June 16, 2014

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled this morning in Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus that a lower court challenge can proceed against Ohio’s law purporting to ban untruthful campaign speech. [decision, SCOTUSBlog, earlier Overlawyered coverage] The ruling was widely expected: “not a single amicus brief was filed on behalf of the state of Ohio, and even liberal groups conceded that allowing the state to arbitrate truth or falsity in political campaigns was troubling. During oral argument, the Justices seemed profoundly skeptical of the law’s underlying constitutionality.” [MSNBC]

The Court did not decide the First Amendment merits. Its ruling instead turns on the cluster of issues relating to standing: was there injury in fact from the law sufficient to support a challenge even though the original complaint had been dropped? While the two wings of the Court often divide on standing, they united in taking an expansive view this time. Here and there Justice Thomas’s opinion for the 9-0 Court does brush up against the underlying First Amendment problem of the chilling of speech, which will now move front and center as the lower court again takes up the case. A passage of particular interest from pp. 15-16 (footnotes omitted):

As the Ohio Attorney General himself notes, the “practical effect” of the Ohio false statement scheme is “to permit a private complainant . . . to gain a campaign advantage without ever having to prove the falsity of a statement.” “[C]omplainants may time their submissions to achieve maximum disruption of their political opponents while calculating that an ultimate decision on the merits will be deferred until after the relevant election.” Moreover, the target of a false statement complaint may be forced to divert significant time and resources to hire legal counsel and respond to discovery requests in the crucial days leading up to an election.

Here’s the entertaining and hilarious amicus brief (what a concept) filed by my Cato colleagues Trevor Burrus, Ilya Shapiro, and Gabriel Latner on behalf of humorist and Cato fellow P.J. O’Rourke (who explains his involvement; more from Ilya and Trevor). And Ilya has a reaction to the opinion at Cato at Liberty (“Chilling speech is no laughing matter… today was a banner morning for free speech and judicial engagement.”)