A long look at election law

Throughout the world, politics in America has the reputation of being something of a free-for-all in which candidates and their supporters trade charges and. counter-charges with virtually no restraint.

Not in Ohio. Buckeye State residents must be very careful what they say about candidates. There is a law against going too far.

It came up during the 2010 election campaign, when the organization Susan B. Anthony List attempted to use a billboard to attack then-Rep. Steve Driehaus, D-Ohio. The group wanted to accuse Driehaus, who lost the election anyway, of supporting taxpayer-funded abortions because he voted for Obamacare.

Driehaus’ attorney threatened to sue and the company refused to rent the billboard. Then Driehaus filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission – which ruled there was probable cause the advertisement would violate state law.

Enacted in 1974, the law bans anyone from making statements about a candidate that are false and made with reckless disregard for the truth. It also bans false statements about “the voting record of a candidate or public official.”

Few people like mud-slinging, half-truths or outright lies in politics.

But the law can be used to limit the free flow of ideas about candidates, simply because much of what is said during election years is subject to interpretation. For example, the claim about Driehaus is not without some basis in fact.

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled a challenge to the Ohio law can proceed. It has been criticized by both liberal and conservative groups.

But it may take years to settle the issue in court. In the meantime, Ohioans’ freedom of speech will be curbed when it comes to politics. That will be true during the election campaigns this year.

Some groups opposing the law want a U.S. District Court judge to issue an injunction banning enforcement while the court challenge proceeds. The judge should do just that. Buckeye State residents should not have to worry every time they criticize a candidate or public official.