The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio filed a court brief Wednesday supporting an anti-abortion group that is being investigated for its plans to erect billboards that Congressman Steve Driehaus (D-Price Hill) said contained false information.
The ACLU's brief supports the Susan B. Anthony List's complaint in federal court that alleges the Ohio law restricting false statements is unconstitutional.
James Hardiman, the ACLU's legal director, said the law prohibits groups from publishing or airing “false” advertisements, but allows the government to determine whether the speech is false.
“Speech rarely is black or white — oftentimes whether a statement is true or false may be a matter of opinion,” Hardiman said in a prepared statement. “If the government silences one side of the debate, the public is less informed and others may be fearful of criticizing elected officials. The answer to unpopular speech is not less, but more speech.”
On Oct 14 Driehaus won the initial hearing on whether his campaign could block the SBA List from erecting its billboards. The Ohio Elections Commission ruled that Driehaus' attorneys could begin taking sworn depositions from representatives of the SBA List.
After the information is complied, the matter will again go before the Ohio Elections Commission to determine whether further action is warranted. Under state law, the commission could issue a public reprimand to the SBA List or refer the matter to the Franklin County Prosecutor's Office.
Making false campaign statements is punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
Based in Washington, D.C., the SBA List is an advocacy group that wants abortion outlawed in the United States. It primarily works toward its goal by supporting anti-abortion legislators.
The group wanted to erect four billboards around the city, including high-traffic spots along Interstates 75 and 74, that featured a photo of the congressman and stated: “Shame on Steve Driehaus! Driehaus voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion.”
The billboards would refer to Driehaus' vote to support President Obama's health-care reform bill last March. Initially, Driehaus — a devout Catholic who opposes abortion — was set to oppose the bill until Obama agreed to sign an Executive Order reaffirming the prohibition against federal funding for abortions.
Independent groups like PolitiFact have stated the law doesn’t allow the use of taxpayer money to provide abortions other than for the same situations previously allowed under the long-standing Hyde Amendment, which are rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.
But anti-abortion groups say government-backed high-risk insurance pools will offer plans that include abortion coverage if the option is paid for out-of-pocket by individual customers.
Regardless of the specifics whether the pools include abortion coverage, the ACLU believes the Ohio law is a dangerous encroachment of rights.
“Election season gives Americans from a variety of political viewpoints an opportunity to express their opinions,” Hardiman said. “Free speech must not be at the whim of officials who may disagree or question its accuracy. Instead, those who differ should speak out and provide information so voters may be as educated as possible.”