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U.S. justices agree to hear challenge to Ohio speech law

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear an appeal by two conservative groups that assert that an Ohio law that imposes penalties for making knowingly false statements about political candidates violates their right to free speech.

The groups, Susan B. Anthony List and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes, say that the possibility that the Ohio statute would be enforced against them deterred them from issuing statements during the 2010 election campaign criticizing a Democratic congressman for supporting President Barack Obama's healthcare law.

Steven Driehaus, at the time a U.S. congressman from Ohio, had earlier filed a complaint with the commission concerning the Susan B. Anthony List. Driehaus lost his re-election bid and the complaint was withdrawn.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group's president, said in a statement on Friday that the Ohio law "demonstrates complete disregard for the constitutional right of citizens to criticize their elected officials."

The other group that challenged the law had not faced any state proceedings.

The groups say that even though they never faced actual penalties, the threat of government action was enough to deter them from issuing statements about Driehaus that they wanted to make. The Ohio law in question makes it a criminal offense to make knowingly or reckless false statements about a candidate.

The maximum penalty is a fine of $5,000 and six months in prison, according to lawyers for the groups.

The Susan B. Anthony List, an organization that opposes legalized abortion, wanted to put up a billboard criticizing Driehaus for supporting the 2010 Affordable Care Act, often known as Obamacare.

A federal judge in Ohio dismissed the two groups' challenge to the Ohio law in August 2011. The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision in May 2013.

The case rests on whether the groups had grounds to challenge the law. The state's lawyers say the groups could show neither that the law threatened their free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution nor that the commission was likely to prosecute them.

A ruling is due by the end of June.

The case is Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus, U.S. Supreme Court, 13-193.

(Editing by Will Dunham and Chris Reese)

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