Pro-Life Group Wins in Supreme Court Free Speech Case

Ohio state law blocked Susan B. Anthony List ads during 2010 election

Pro-abortion and anti-abortion protestors rally outside the Supreme Court / AP

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A prominent pro-life group won a decisive victory against an Ohio state law that blocked a series of campaign ads during the 2010 election.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List), a non-profit organization that supports pro-life candidates, had every right to establish billboards stating that a vote for Obamacare meant a vote for taxpayer funded abortion during the 2010 midterm elections.

The target of those billboards, Democratic Rep. Steve Driehaus, sued the group using an Ohio law that prohibits "false statements" in political campaigns. Driehaus lost the election by 7 points.

The court’s 9-0 verdict concluded that the use of the Ohio law would hinder freedom of speech.

"Because the universe of potential complainants is not restricted to state officials who are constrained by explicit guidelines or ethical obligations, there is a real risk of complaints from, for example, political opponents," the opinion, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, says. "We have no difficulty concluding that petitioners’ intended speech is ‘arguably proscribed’ by the law… there is every reason to think that similar speech in the future will result in similar proceedings."

SBA List president Marjorie Dannenfelser called the decision a victory for free speech, as well as for the group’s pro-life message.

"It’s the first step toward a true victory for the first amendment … and a strike against fear in the public square," she said in a Monday morning press call. "The threat of jail time or fines that could put you out of business is a chill on free speech."

Ohio’s law, Dannenfelser said, constrained the group from educating voters and allowing them to discern a candidate’s positions on controversial issues such as abortion. SBA List argued throughout its three-year legal struggle that the law had become a political tactic to silence opponents during close elections.

"The political use of the law should not be overlooked," Dannenfelser said, pointing out that SBA List had to refocus its energy to litigation, rather than the 2010 campaign. "Ultimately the whole election could be decided by a small tribunal of folks."

The court agreed, saying that the law could force political groups "to choose between refraining from core political speech on the one hand, or engaging in that speech and risking costly Commission proceedings and criminal prosecution on the other."

The decision could have major implications during the 2014 election cycle. Attorneys for SBA List plan on filing suit in Ohio federal court to have the campaign law struck down as "blatantly unconstitutional." The fact that five Supreme Court justices who support Roe v. Wade, the decision that legalized abortion, joined the court’s conservative bloc could help send a message to lower courts about the constitutionality of such regulations.

"The Supreme Court decision is very gratifying," attorney Michael Carvin said on the call. "We plan on moving as rapidly as possible … to have this law invalidated so we can speak the way the First Amendment was intended."

Dannenfelser said the group intends to "communicate the exact same message in Ohio in 2014 and beyond." SBA List has already placed billboards linking Obamacare to taxpayer funding for abortion in Louisiana, Arkansas, and North Carolina, where Republicans are hoping to win seats that could determine control of the Senate. Those same billboards could soon be seen in Ohio.

"We knew that without an amendment to [Obamacare] there would be taxpayer funding of abortion. We’ve seen that happen," Dannenfelser said. "That argument needs to be made and the people who voted for this bill who don’t believe in taxpayer-funded abortion need to explain why they were wrong [about Obamacare] or if their views have changed."

Bill McMorris   Email Bill | Full Bio | RSS
Bill McMorris is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon. He joins the Beacon from the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, where he was managing editor of Old Dominion Watchdog. He was a 2010 Robert Novak Fellow with the Phillips Foundation, where he studied state pension shortfalls. His work has been featured on CNN, Fox News, The Economist, Colbert Report, and numerous print publications and radio stations. He lives in Alexandria, Va, with his wife and three daughters. His Twitter handle is @FBillMcMorris. His email address is mcmorris@freebeacon.com.

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