A federal judge has handed the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List a major free-speech victory in a two-year battle with a former congressman who alleged the organization cost him his job and “loss of livelihood” when it educated constituents on his voting record.
“While we’re pleased with the outcome, this was a protracted legal battle that was taxing on our resources and should never have happened in a country that enshrines free speech,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA List. “The blatant disregard for the First Amendment and the constitutional right of people to speak out against the actions of those elected to represent them is unacceptable.”
Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Driehaus was defeated in his 2010 re-election campaign by U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot. It was during the campaign that the Democratic Party even pulled its financial support for television ads for Driehaus when he fell behind.
After his loss, Driehaus first filed a criminal complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission under a statute that carried the possibility of a jail time. He later decided to pursue a defamation claim.
But U.S. District Judge Timothy Black dismissed his claims.
“The concomitant principles of free speech and truth collide most violently in the arena of political speech. During the recently passed national elections, citizens were bombarded with political advertisements that the targets of which daily denounced as lies. Who then shall be the arbiter of political truth? Ultimately, in a free society, the truth of political back and forth must be adjudicated in the ‘marketplace of ideas,’” the judge wrote.
“Notwithstanding all of this, the court’s prior analysis is sound to a degree; when one walks through the elements of a claim for defamation, the required allegations are present here.
“However, that precise and robotic analysis of each of the factors required for defamation caused the court to focus only on the trees and ultimately not to see the forest. Here, the forest is the right to free speech under the First Amendment, even false speech, when it applies to politics,” he continued.
The organization had complained of Driehaus’ support for taxpayer funding of abortion in Obamacare, but the former congressman contended that it did no such thing. That, however, is fact these days with the Obamacare mandate’s requirement that even business owners of faith pay for abortifacients, a determination that has prompted dozens of court challenges.
SBA officials said since Driehaus filed his lawsuit, the organization’s arguments have gained widespread support. For example, the ACLU of Ohio said, “The people have an absolute right to criticize their public officials, the government should not be the arbiter of true or false speech, and the best answer for bad speech is more speech.”
Organization officials said they wanted voters to be aware of the congressman’s words and votes, and where he once stood on the issue saying, “Driehaus was originally opposed to the health care bill because it did not contain specific language preventing the funding of abortion, and that has not changed. The bill still lacks the necessary safeguards Driehaus said needed to be in place for him to support the legislation, and yet he voted for it. We made the voters in his district aware of his vote and there is nothing defaming about that.”
Black noted the U.S. Supreme Court has said, “Speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values, and is entitled to special protection.”