The politics of healthcare reform and abortion are turning Ohio upside down as a federal judge gets ready to weigh in on state regulations regarding political speech.
In one corner: Rep. Steve Driehaus and pro-reform Catholics, who want the Ohio Elections Commission to bar political ads that accuse the incumbent Democrat of having "voted for taxpayer-funded abortion."
In the other: the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a perennial whipping boy for conservatives, which argue an Ohio law establishing "false statement" prohibitions illegally restricts free-speech rights.
The debate was sparked by SBA billboard ads targeting Driehaus. The anti-abortion-rights group is targeting Democrats in 42 battleground districts with ads criticizing their vote for healthcare reform. Driehaus is among the most vulnerable Democrats running this cycle.
Driehaus complained to the Ohio Elections Commission earlier this month, and a commission panel last week allowed the complaint to go forward and scheduled a full commission hearing for Oct. 28. The complaint alleges that the ads violate state restrictions on "false statements" because their content is demonstrably false.
The billboard owners voluntarily took down the ads to avoid being dragged into the legal dispute. SBA officials face a $5,000 fine and six months in jail, a spokeswoman for the group said.
On Monday, SBA filed suit in federal court to overturn the law. Judge Timothy Black of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Ohio is expected to decide Wednesday whether to review the state law's constitutionality and issue a temporary restraining order against the electoral commission's hearing.
Earlier Wednesday, the ACLU filed an amicus brief in the case arguing the Ohio law is "vague and overbroad."
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 left-leaning Catholics United disagrees.
"There are limits on free speech," Executive Director Chris Korzen said on a conference call Wednesday. "We know that it's not legal in this country to engage in defamatory speech designed to cause harm. There's a tremendous amount of harm done when voters are lied to in the context of an election. It undermines the democratic process, and I believe that there should be restrictions on lying."
Separately, Catholics United supports an open letter from faith leaders in next-door Pennsylvania calling for an end to similar attacks against Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D).
"As people of faith who believe in upholding the dignity of life," the letter reads, "we deplore the misleading and partisan attacks on Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper from the Susan B. Anthony List, the Family Research Council and other national organizations responsible for a series of inflammatory and misleading ads being distributed across Erie County."
The letter is signed by some 50 people, including 22 nuns, a priest, several other clergy and dozens of lay leaders.