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Judge: Government Can't Arbitrate The Truth In Politics


It's no surprise that political campaigns stretch the truth and sometimes outright lie during elections. But in Ohio and several other states, it's technically forbidden by law. This week a federal judge ruled Ohio's law against lying unconstitutional.

Nick Castele of member station WCPN reports.

NICK CASTELE, BYLINE: Back in 2010, the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List declared then-Democratic congressman Steven Driehaus voted for taxpayer-funded abortion when he backed the Affordable Care Act. Driehaus maintained they were wrong and he filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission to decide who was right. He lost his election and dropped his complaint, but Susan B. Anthony List pursued the question in court anyway, saying the state has no business arbitrating what's true and what's malarkey.

Marilyn Musgrave is the group's vice president of government affairs.

MARILYN MUSGRAVE: When you have a panel that's politically appointed like this and they say that they can determine truth, it has a chilling effect on free speech.

CASTELE: Federal judge Timothy Black agreed and he's not the only one. An appeals court also struck down a similar law in Minnesota. Susan B. Anthony List is now preparing new attack ads with the same message in 2014 congressional races. Ohio Elections Commission director, Phil Richter, says he and his colleagues weigh false statement cases very carefully.

PHIL RICHTER: The Commission can only act on those statements that were actually found to be false, not just misinterpretation, not just something that was misleading, not just something that somebody didn't like.

CASTELE: Catherine Turcer from watchdog group Common Cause, says she thinks the judge made the right call in overturning the law. She said Ohio's system gave too much power to the government.

CATHERINE TURCER: I'm not sure it quite works right. It makes me completely queasy, but I can't imagine how we're going to arbitrate the truth.

CASTELE: Judge Black, who wrote the ruling, suggested people look to Frank Underwood, the scheming politician from the show "House Of Cards." Quoting Underwood, Black wrote, "there's no better way to overpower a trickle of doubt than with a flood of naked truth."

For NPR News, I'm Nick Castele in Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nick Castele

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