What’s the line between a negative political ad and actionable slander? Former U.S. congressman Steve Driehaus is trying to find out. The Ohio Representative, a pro-life Democrat, lost his seat in 2010 due in part to ads in his district attacking his vote for President Obama’s health care plan: the ads called the plan “taxpayer-funded abortion.” Now, Driehaus is suing the independent group that placed the ads, the Susan B. Anthony List, “because I think the truth matters.”
Throughout the controversy over “Obamacare,” many groups argued that the bill would indirectly lead to the funding of abortion, even though Obama issued an executive order ruling out such funding. The Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group, argues that its ads represented a valid interpretation of the law’s effects and were therefore “protected opinion.” But last week, a federal judge ruled that Driehaus has standing to sue the SBA because “the express language” of the health care bill “does not provide for taxpayer-funded abortion. That is a fact, and it is clear on its face.”
If other politicians follow Driehaus’s lead, some fear a chilling effect on independent advocacy groups, which have been amping up their ad spending since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted restraints on political advertising. Marjorie Dannenfelser, SBA president, told a reporter she worries that free speech may be imperiled. Driehaus’s attorney Paul De Marco retorted that liars can’t “hide behind the First Amendment.” Whatever the case, if the SBA and similar groups are concerned about possible lawsuits, attack ads may be a little less hostile in 2012—good news for Democrats like Driehaus.