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Court backs pro-life ads as free speech

WASHINGTON (BP) — A national pro-life organization has gained a victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in its challenge to a state law it says restricts free speech.

The justices unanimously ruled Monday (June 16) the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List) had demonstrated that an Ohio prohibition on “false statement[s]” during an election campaign injured the pro-life organization. The SBA List and another organization thereby can go forward with their lawsuit, they said. The high court returned the combined case to a federal judge for a ruling in keeping with its opinion.

The SBA List ran ads during the 2010 election campaign asserting Rep. Steve Driehaus, a Democrat, voted for “taxpayer-funded abortion” when he supported the health-care reform law enacted earlier in the year. It also sought to rent billboards in his Ohio district to communicate that message. Driehaus, who described himself as pro-life, denied the measure funded abortions and filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission. Before the November election, the panel found probable cause that the SBA List had violated the “false statement[s]” prohibition.

The SBA List and the country’s other major pro-life organizations sharply disagreed with Driehaus, contending the new law authorized federal funding of abortion and/or federal subsidies for insurance plans that cover abortion. The National Right to Life Committee and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops undergirded their positions in detailed documents.

Driehaus dropped his complaint after he lost his race for re-election, but the SBA List continued with a suit it had filed before the election. The pro-life organization alleged its free speech had been chilled and it faced the likelihood that its rights to free speech and association would again be “chilled and burdened.” A federal court combined the challenge with one brought by the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes but dismissed the suits, ruling neither offered a “sufficiently concrete injury for purposes of standing or ripeness.” The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati affirmed the decision.

The SBA List welcomed the Supreme Court’s ruling in its favor as a “step toward victory for the freedom of speech.”

“The truth or falsity of political speech should be judged by voters, not government bureaucrats,” SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser said in a written statement.

“It is beyond dispute that Obamacare contains multiple abortion-funding provisions,” she said, adding SBA List “is now one step closer in its quest to unleash the First Amendment from the constraints imposed by Ohio’s unconstitutional false speech statute.”

David Cortman, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a written release, “The First Amendment forbids government from acting as a ‘truth commission’ on matters of public debate. The U.S. Supreme Court has rightfully upheld the freedom of Americans to speak in accordance with their views by allowing them to challenge laws that silence them. The Susan B. Anthony List’s warnings about abortion funding in Obamacare were objectively true. If that fact was part of what cost this congressman his job, that’s because his constituents, like most Americans, reject taxpayer-funded abortion.”

Writing for the Supreme Court, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas said the Ohio commission’s proceedings were burdensome for the SBA List with the “additional threat of criminal prosecution.”

“As long as the petitioners continue to engage in comparable electoral speech regarding support for the [Affordable Care Act], that speech will remain arguably proscribed by Ohio’s false statement statute,” Thomas wrote.

The SBA List’s “insistence that the allegations in its press release were true did not prevent the Commission panel from finding probable cause to believe that SBA had violated the law the first time around,” he wrote. “And, there is every reason to think that similar speech in the future will result in similar proceedings, notwithstanding SBA’s belief in the truth of its allegations.”

The case is SBA List v. Driehaus.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.