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Published: Sunday, 10/24/2010

Fight speech with speech

STRETCHING the truth or even lying is nothing new in political campaigns. It is particularly prevalent in fiercely competitive races where falsehoods routinely pass for facts in political advertisements.

Although voters might wish that opposing campaigns would engage in responsible speech, efforts to ban political speech on the basis of its challenged accuracy raise constitutional issues. That is the crux of a lawsuit, filed by a national anti-abortion group, against an Ohio election law that prohibits the erection of a disputed political billboard.

The Susan B. Anthony List, based in Washington, is spending heavily to defeat numerous House Democrats who voted for the new health-care law. The group equates a vote for the law with support for taxpayer-financed abortions - a dubious claim, since an executive order signed by President Obama reaffirms that federal funds cannot be used for abortion.

First-term Democrat Steve Driehaus of Ohio is one of several anti-abortion lawmakers who were targeted. The group planned to put up a billboard in his Cincinnati-area district that was to read "Shame on Steve Driehaus" and accuse the incumbent of voting "for taxpayer-funded abortions."

But Mr. Driehaus' complaint that the message was untrue and violates a state law that restricts false statements about a candidate's voting record was supported by the Ohio Election Commission. The anti-abortion group sued to overturn what it considers a vague law that violates First Amendment rights protecting free speech.

The American Civil Liberties Union teamed up with the conservative group to attack the Ohio statute, arguing rightly that "government should not be the arbiter of true or false speech and, in any event, the best answer for bad speech is more speech." In the battle over who determines the truth - especially in the context of heated elections - citizens must be the final judges of legitimacy gleaned from a free exchange of ideas.

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