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ACLU Backs Pro-Life Group in Free Speech Billboard Case

"The entirety of the statute criminalizes what is, in essence, core political speech."

The pro-life group the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA) has gotten some unexpected support in its fight to post billboards accusing Ohio Rep. Steve Driehaus of voting for taxpayer-funded abortions. The liberal ACLU has now filed a brief defending the pro-life group.

At issue is a series of billboards accusing Driehaus of voting for taxpayer-funded abortions when he voted for the health care bill. Driehaus says that is absolutely false, and reported the group to the Ohio Elections Commission.

Driehaus's complaint is based on an Ohio criminal statute that makes it illegal to make “a false statement concerning the voting record of a candidate or public official.”

Last week, a three-person commission panel failed to dismiss the allegations. The case will now be heard in front of the full Ohio Elections Commission.

That decision prompted the ACLU to come to SBA's defense.

The law "cannot withstand constitutional scrutiny," the ACLU brief states. "The statute fails for the same reasons that the Sedition Act has been condemned by history. The people have an absolute right to criticize their public officials, the government should not be the arbiter of true or false speech and, in any event, the best answer for bad speech is more speech."

The civil liberties group also argues that the Ohio law is "vague and overbroad."

The brief continues:

The entirety of the statute criminalizes what is, in essence, core political speech. The statute prohibits a wide variety of speech, in an equally wide variety of contexts and media. The only criteria to fall within the prohibition: that someone allege the speech is "false." It is not the government’s place to pass judgment on what political speech is acceptable, and certainly not in the context of criticizing a public official.

An SBA spokesperson told The Hill that should the group be found guilty, SBA officials face a $5,000 fine and six months in jail.

In response to the allegations, The Hill reports, SBA filed suit in federal court on Monday to overturn the Ohio law. "Judge Timothy Black of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio is expected to decide [soon] whether to review the state law's constitutionality and issue a temporary restraining order against the electoral commission's hearing," reporter Julian Pecquet writes.

SBA released a radio ad this week responding to Driehaus's allegations:

“Rep. Steve Driehaus’ heavy-handed attempt to silence critics of his vote for taxpayer funding of abortion will not work,” said SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser in a statement.  “Our radio ads are spreading the truth about his pro-abortion health care vote to the people of his district, despite his efforts to stifle our constitutionally-protected free speech.”

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