In an unqualified victory for the First Amendment, a U.S. district court judge has reversed himself and tossed out a defamation lawsuit brought by a former member of Congress against the Susan B. Anthony List, who, he claimed, had misstated his position on abortion and led to his defeat.
The former congressman, ex-Cincinnati, Ohio-area Rep. Steve Driehaus, claimed the group had defamed he when it threatened to put up billboards during the 2012 election claiming he had voted to support taxpayer-funded abortion when he voted in favor of "Obamacare," which was narrowly approved by the U.S. House of Representatives only after the so-called "prolife wing" of the Democratic caucus secured a promise from President Barack Obama that the legislation would not lead to taxpayer support for abortions.
Subsequent events have proven that, as the Susan B. Anthony List and other prolife groups charged at the time, the president's promise was not worth the paper it was printed on. The administration has not wavered in its support for abortion rights, most notably in its mandate that religious institutions provide coverage for traditional abortion, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs as part of any health insurance plan it offers to its workers.
Although the billboards were never put up, Driehaus nonetheless accused the group of defaming him by lying about his position and, at one point, of having cost him his livelihood.
In his seven page ruling, District Court Judge Timothy Black admitted he had not been able to "see the forest for the trees" when he originally allowed the lawsuit—which had been criticized as an infringement on the constitutional right to free speech by both liberals and conservatives— to move forward.
"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,'" Black, an Obama appointee, wrote in his decision.
"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," Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, said. "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."
"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," said Dannenfelser.
For once it appears, sanity prevails in federal court. The idea that members of Congress would be permitted to hold political advocacy groups to some kind of imaginary strict standard would have a chilling effect on the electoral process. It is true that advocacy groups sometimes misstate the truth—though the Susan B. Anthony List clearly did not do so in this case—but the political system already provides means of redress. Candidates for elective office are free to issues statements or purchase ads in response. The so-called "fact checkers" that are now ubiquitous in the media also have a role to play here, though they sometimes are unable to distinguish between actual facts and opinions that are clearly debatable.
The notion that a single interest group could be held responsible for depriving an elected official of his or her livelihood implies that politicians have some sort of right to the office to which they have been elected. In a democracy, in a country with a republican form of government, such ideas can mean death to the system if allowed to take root. In fighting back, in contesting the case and refusing to settle, the Susan B. Anthony List not only helped itself, it did an important service to the democratic process.