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Government: Arbitrator of Truth

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus, a case being referred to as the “right to lie” case.

The Susan B. Anthony List (SBA) is a national pro-life advocacy group that is actively involved in political campaigns.

Steve Driehaus is a former Congressman from Ohio who was one of a handful of pro-life Democrats who eventually voted for Obamacare after allegedly getting concessions from the President ensuring that no federal funds would be used for abortion.

At the time, pro-life organizations, including SBA, were outspoken in their belief that the agreement would not actually stop federal funds from being used for abortion.

Upset by his vote, SBA attempted to put up billboards that said “Shame on Steve Driehaus! Driehaus voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion” during his 2010 reelection campaign.

However, before the message was ever put on the billboard, Driehaus threatened to sue both SBA and the billboard company under an Ohio law that makes it a crime to knowingly publish false statements about a political candidate. As a result, the billboard company refused to publish the advertisements.

The response from SBA was, “It’s not false!”

SBA believes that the federal subsidies for state insurance plans that cover abortion is, itself, paying for abortion.

That is a defensible position.

On the other hand, the President did sign an executive order stating that federal funds would not be used for abortion, and Driehaus did not vote for Obamacare until that was done.  

Driehaus doesn’t think he voted for taxpayer funded abortion, but SBA list thinks he did.

Should the Government be able to prohibit SBA from making their argument because they have agreed with Driehaus that it isn’t true?

The legal question in the case is whether the state of Ohio can decide when something is a “lie” or not and prohibit that message from being communicated as a result.

The policy question is, perhaps, just as significant.  

As the left becomes increasingly hostile to the free exchange of ideas, we are seeing an increasing fondness for policies that prohibit the expression of certain viewpoints.

They try to end debate by claiming there is no debate. They have convinced themselves that their opinion is not an opinion at all but fact.

In 2010, legislation was introduced in the Washington State legislature that would have created legal penalties if pro-life pregnancy resource centers distributed information they determined to be “medically and scientifically inaccurate.” 

It was designed to stop them from saying things like, “abortion has been linked to breast cancer” or “abortion can lead to higher rates of depression, alcoholism, or drug use.” 

Because abortion industry supporters disagree with those statements, they want to make it illegal to say them.

Three years prior, in 2007, Washington State passed a law taking away a school district’s authority to choose abstinence based sex education using the same “medically and scientifically accurate” justification.  Essentially they said, “you school boards are required by law to give children the information we think they should have because we are right.” 

Of course, it is often the job of government to make a decision about a subject on which people disagree. There will be an income tax or there will not be an income tax. Whatever the decision, someone will be unhappy.

But in these cases, the purpose of the policies are to prohibit certain people from expressing themselves under the guise of “consumer protection” or “free and fair elections.”

But who will oversee the overseer?   

Giving government the power to prohibit the expression of certain views simply because they are “lies” is particularly troubling when government, as it often is, is such an active participant in the underlying debate. 

It is an advantage if one team has the ability to call a penalty on their opponent.

We’ve all been in situations where two people looked at the same set of facts and reached opposite conclusions. 

Does that mean someone is lying?  No. 

Perspective matters and none of us are without bias.  Our experiences shape our beliefs about what is true and what isn’t.

A law prohibiting lying in a political campaign sounds wonderful.

None of us wants to be lied to.

We even snicker gleefully at the possibility that such a law might end political advertising altogether.

But we should all be skeptical about giving anyone the power to silence another’s message by simply attaching the label “lie” or “medically and scientifically inaccurate” to it. 

The real world is unfortunately messy.  There are dishonest people.  Lots of them.  

Freedom is inefficient and it provides opportunities for abuse. But it’s better than the alternatives.

Governments that create policies specifically to control what messages can be communicated don’t usually produce great results for the people.

Note: After the billboard company refused to place their ads, SBA list put the same message on the radio. Driehaus lost his re-election bid. 

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