From The Cincinnati Enquirer The Ohio Elections Commission can't crack down on Tweets -- even if those 140-character messages include false political information, a Cincinnati federal judge ruled on Monday.
The decision by Judge Michael Barrett, who sits on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, bars the Ohio Elections Commission from enforcing the state's false claims statute. That law bans political lies in campaigns, and it's been the subject of multiple legal battles in recent years.
At the center of this fight: a series of 140-character messages posted on Twitter in 2011 by a Cincinnati anti-tax group, COAST, which urged support for a charter amendment that would have blocked the streetcar project. COAST said the streetcar was diverting money from the city's fire department, causing services to be reduced.
One COAST tweet, for example, said: "12.5% of the fire dept. browned out again today to pay for streetcar boondoggle that 62% think is a waste. @CFDHistory YES ON 48 No streetcar."
A pro-streetcar group, Cincinnatians for Progress, filed a complaint against COAST in November 2011, arguing that 20 tweets posted by the group violated Ohio's law banning false statements in political campaigns. The Ohio Elections Commission dismissed the complaint, finding no probable cause that COAST had violated the ban.
But COAST used the case to go to federal district court and challenge the Ohio law—saying it infringed on the group's free-speech rights.
On Friday, COAST won an initial victory with Barrett's decision, a temporary injunction barring enforcement of the ban on political lies.
Christopher Finney, a founder of COAST, said the decision is important because it shows how the "meddling" the law is, allowing the Ohio Elections Committee to "bother themselves with speech as irrelevant as a Tweet. That's how involved in our lives they were."
This decision says "stay out of our political speech entirely," Finney added.
It's the second setback for the false-claims law.
In September, another federal judge struck down the Ohio law after an anti-abortion group, the Susan B. Anthony List, challenged its constitutionality. That case related to billboards the SBA List wanted to put up criticizing then-Rep. Steven Driehaus in his 2010 re-election. In that case, Judge Timothy Black said voters—not the government—should decide whether a campaign is telling the truth.
The Ohio Attorney General's office has appealed that decision.