The Supreme Court justices expressed strong skepticism about Ohio’s law barring political lies, suggesting during oral arguments on Tuesday that it chills free speech even if it’s not enforced through criminal prosecution.
The justices seemed to reject the argument — put forth by Ohio State Solicitor Eric Murphy — that those challenging the law couldn’t show it had stifled their speech in the past or would do so in the future.
Justice Samuel Alito said Ohio’s system of policing election rhetoric appears to limit “core speech” without offering a chance for plaintiffs to challenge the restrictions in court.
Michael Carvin, an attorney for the plaintiffs — Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, and COAST, a Cincinnati anti-tax group — argued that even absent prosecution, the two groups had suffered “concrete” harm to their First Amendment rights and should therefore be allowed to challenge the Ohio ban in a lower court.
And Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed to agree, saying that simply requiring individuals and groups to defend their political message before the Ohio Elections Commission would “diminish the effect” of their speech.
The question before the high court on Tuesday was relatively narrow — when and how the two advocacy groups can challenge Ohio’s restrictions on political speech. More specifically, the justices weighed whether the groups have legal standing and whether their case is premature to allow their constitutional claim to move forward.
The outcome could have broad ramifications on elections in Ohio, as well as 15 other states that have similar bans on political lies.