Ohio Congressman Sues Pro-Life Group After Election Defeat

Ohio Congressman Steve Driehaus is suing a pro-life PAC for "defamation" and "loss of livelihood" over its role in his defeat in the 2010 Elections.

There is, I think, no better example of the arrogance of power than recently defeated Ohio Congressman Steve Driehaus:

U.S. Rep. Steve Driehaus sued an anti-abortion group Friday for making statements that he says misled voters about his stance on abortion.

Driehaus said the Susan B. Anthony List lied about him in public statements and then sued him for trying to stop the group from posting misleading billboards.

The group claims Driehaus, who has campaigned as an anti-abortion candidate, supports taxpayer-funded abortions because he voted for the national health care law. Driehaus said the claim is false and that the law bars any federal funding of abortion.

“A lie is a lie,” Driehaus’ lawyers wrote in his federal defamation lawsuit. “The First Amendment is not and never has been an invitation to concoct falsehoods aimed at depriving a person of his livelihood.”

This wasn’t the first action that Driehaus had filed against the Susan B. Anthony List. Prior to the election, he filed a criminal complaint and other legal actions to prevent the group from putting up billboards in his district:

Even before he was kicked to the curb by Ohio voters, Rep. Steve Driehaus, D-Ohio, tried to silence the Alexandria-based Susan B. Anthony List for criticizing his vote for Obamacare after the Stupak amendment banning the use of federal funds for abortion was stripped out of the bill.

Citing an Ohio statute that makes it a crime to knowingly tell malicious lies about a public official, the formerly pro-life congressman filed a criminal complaint against the PAC on Oct. 6, insisting that the health care bill he voted for would not fund abortion.

“The four billboards we planned to put up in his district, but were never allowed to, said: ‘Shame on Driehaus. He voted for taxpayer funded abortion,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the SBA List, told The Examiner.

However, many other pro-life groups besides the SBA List believe otherwise, including The National Right to Life Committee and Ohio Right to Life, whose executive director, Mike Gonidakis, said: “The health care bill that Rep. Steve Driehaus voted for is a death sentence to an untold number of innocent unborn babies and he knows it.”

Even the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, which came to the SBA List’s defense, couldn’t stomach Driehaus’ attempt at revenge, arguing that the Ohio law was unconstitutional because it forces the state to prosecute private individuals for criticizing public officials.”The people have an absolute right to criticize their public officials, the government should not be the arbiter of true or false speech and, in any event, the best answer for bad speech is more speech,” the ACLU Ohio’s amicus brief noted.

Driehaus’s Complaint is actually a Counterclaim in a lawsuit that the Susan B. Anthony List filed against him for what they purported to be violations of their Constitutional rights during the election. Regardless of the merits, of the List’s lawsuit, though, it seems pretty clear to me that Driehaus doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on here. In New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court set forth an incredibly high standard for public officials pursuing a claim of libel or defamation related to their official conduct:

A rule compelling the critic of official conduct to guarantee the truth of all his factual assertions — and to do so on pain of libel judgments virtually unlimited in amount — leads to a comparable “self-censorship.” Allowance of the defense of truth, with the burden of proving it on the defendant, does not mean that only false speech will be deterred. Even courts accepting this defense as an adequate safeguard have recognized the difficulties of adducing legal proofs that the alleged libel was true in all its factual particulars. See, e.g., Post Publishing Co. v. Hallam, 59 F. 530, 540 (C.A. 6th Cir. 1893); see also Noel, Defamation of Public Officers and Candidates, 49 Col.L.Rev. 875, 892 (1949). Under such a rule, would-be critics of official conduct may be deterred from voicing their criticism, even though it is believed to be true and even though it is, in fact, true, because of doubt whether it can be proved in court or fear of the expense of having to do so. They tend to make only statements which “steer far wider of the unlawful zone.” Speiser v. Randall, supra, 357 U.S. at 526. The rule thus dampens the vigor and limits the variety of public debate. It is inconsistent with the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with “actual malice” — that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.

In this case, that would essentially require Driehaus to prove not only that the claims that the SBA List was making about him during the election were factually untrue, but that the List made them with the knowledge that they were false or with reckless disregard as to their truth.Given the fact that the nature of abortion coverage and funding under the Affordable Care Act seems to be pretty much a matter of personal interpretation and political spin, then it’s hard to see how Driehaus is even going to make the case that the statements the List made were false. Even if he can, proving actual malice is incredibly difficult.

Beyond the legal issues, though, there’s a certain amount of arrogance on Driehaus’s part here. It’s not even clear that the abortion funding issue was the reason he lost the election. The mere fact of filing this lawsuit demonstrates a sense of entitlement on his part that, I think, is probably a much better explanation for why he lost.

Here’s a copy of Driehaus’s Complaint:

Susan B Anthony List v. Steve Driehaus

H/T: Yid With Lid

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FILED UNDER: Campaign 2010, Congress, Law and the Courts, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. james says:

    Well here we go, elections don’t matter.

    This is support term limits, serve more then two terms and you get exit audit.

  2. Maggie Mama says:

    This LAME duck Congressman can’t state that this group cost him the election without going out to canvas every voter in his district who did not vote for him and ask the reason why.

    Good luck with that. Half the population doesn’t have a clue why they vote the way the vote. Might even be a few who don’t remember voting at all.

  3. Raoul says:

    Spin? Interpretation? The AHCA will neither increase or decrease abortions in this country- if we stipulate to that- would you then agree with the lawsuit?

  4. largebill says:

    Raoul,

    No, we can not stipulate that claim. We have no idea what all consequences will come from this bill. Just as no one at the time argued effectively that Johnson’s Great Society package of legislation would greatly harm minority families (or families living at or around the poverty level). Most legislators can’t (or choose not to) look past the end of their nose when discussing any legislation. Almost none of them will consider how people will act in the future once a government program is in place to do X.

  5. largebill says:

    Doug,

    I live in the Cincinnati area. Driehaus has consistently professed to be pro-life. I have no reason to believe he is not. However, when Democrats who claim to be pro-life get to national office they find they need to support legislation the party wants that does not advance the pro-life cause. You don’t vote often enough with party leadership then you don’t get funding & support in next election. First termers like Driehaus are particularly vulnerable. Political power is intoxicating and addicting. Once in office many believe the position is theirs as long as they want it. That is a bigger problem with the senate than the house, but affects all.

  6. Contracts says:

    Perhaps Driehaus’s problem is that he considers being a Congressman to be his “livelihood.”

  7. John425 says:

    Typical Democrat. Even when wrong, they feel entitled.

  8. wr says:

    John425 — Yes, just like entitled Democrat Joe Miller.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    I hope he wins this one. You shouldn’t get a pass on putting up billboards with lies on them simply because it is in the context of the election. I think the Supreme Court standard is too high. I could put up a billboard saying that George Bush raped someone, or Barak Obama embezzled funds if I heard it from a drunk in a bar and was inclined to believe it, or at least maintained that I believed it. If I did this for a private citizen or even a non-political celebrity I would find myself in court in a heartbeat. Why should the fact that he is a politician make any difference?

  10. Alan says:

    MarkedMan uses examples that are irrelevant in degree, because he uses examples in which he knows it’s false on the face of it, or at minimum without a smidgen bit of regard for the truth.

    The truth is that Obama’s abomination that they falsely labeled “Health Care”, properly titled “Nationalization of Medicine”, everybody knew when they voted for it –including these pro-life Democrats– that it would be used to fund abortions unless specifically banned.

    Now we see that it has already happened, and we see also that Obama lied big time to Stupak and the other pro-life Dems to get their votes. Wink, wink.

    This guy should be suing Obama for depriving him of his livelihood…

  11. MarkedMan says:

    Alan,
    It’s already happened? Amazing, considering it hasn’t paid for anything yet. And the AHCA was deliberately constructed so it wouldn’t fund abortions (to a ridiculous degree in my opinion). Judging from your comment I take it that the right wing BS machine has already ‘proved’ the contrary, despite the fact that it hasn’t taken effect. So, if you were to post that on a billboard, given that it is demonstrably false, it would definitely mirror this case. Just because you want to believe something really hard, doesn’t make it true.