WASHINGTON (CN) - Reviving a challenge to an Ohio law that criminalizes false political speech, the Supreme Court found Monday that the law's opponents need not prove they face a credible threat of prosecution.
Section 3517.21(B) of the Ohio code makes it a crime to "post, publish, circulate, distribute or otherwise disseminate a false statement concerning a candidate" or ballot initiative, knowingly or with "reckless disregard."
The Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, ran afoul of the provisions with its plans to criticize support of the Affordable Care Act. The group's billboard sign would have read: "Shame on Steven Driehaus! Driehaus voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion."
That billboard never went up, however, because an attorney for Rep. Driehaus supposedly threatened the company that owned the advertising space with legal action.
Susan B. Anthony List responded by challenging the Ohio law in federal court.
While that lawsuit was pending, another conservative group, called the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), filed a lawsuit claiming it wanted to make similar statements about candidates but was chilled from doing so by Ohio laws.
A federal judge consolidated the complaints and dismissed them, saying any injury was "far too attenuated," because prosecution was only "speculative."
The Supreme Court took up the case after the 6th Circuit affirmed
Its reversal Monday was unanimous.
"Here, SBA and COAST contend that the threat of enforcement of the false statement statute amounts to an Article III injury in fact," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court. "We agree: Petitioners have alleged a credible threat of enforcement."
Thomas added that the federal appeals court "misses the point" in emphasizing the groups' belief that their statements are factually true.
"SBA'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," the 20-page opinion states. "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. Nothing in this court's decisions requires a plaintiff who wishes to challenge the constitutionality of a law to confess that he will in fact violate that law."