Today the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus, a First Amendment challenge to an Ohio law that prohibits intentionally false statements about political candidates. The case itself presents the basic free speech question only obliquely. The central issue before the Court is a technical one: whether a party can even go to court to challenge this kind of law prior to being prosecuted for violating that law. This is a question, in other words, of whether the plaintiff has “standing” to make the First Amendment challenge. But the underlying constitutional question—whether the First Amendment permits the regulation of blatant lies in political campaigns—will surely be part of the tomorrow’s oral argument.
The First Amendment status of lies is not a new issue for the Roberts Court. It was at issue before just two years ago in United States v. Alvarez, a case involving a small town public official who liked to tell stories about himself. In describing his background at a local water board meeting, Xavier Alvarez described himself as a retired marine who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor. This was a bald-faced lie. Alvarez had never even served in the military. It was, as the Court would describe it, “a pathetic attempt to gain respect that eluded him.” Alvarez was charged with violating the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, a federal law that prohibited falsely claiming military decorations or medals. Alvarez challenged the law as infringing his First Amendment right to free expression.
The Supreme Court sided with Alvarez. Justice Kennedy, writing for a 6-3 majority (although his reasoning had only four votes), rejected the Justice Department’s contention that lies receive no protection under the First Amendment. As content-based speech restrictions, lies must be held to the most exacting demands of the First Amendment. “Some false statements are inevitable if there is to be an open and vigorous expression of views in public and private conversation, expression the First Amendment seeks to guarantee,” wrote Justice Kennedy.
By looking back at oral argument in Alvarez, we can find a couple of fascinating moments that may help illuminate the issues the Court will consider tomorrow in the Susan B. Anthony List case. (more…)