McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission

McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission

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McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission

 

McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission

 

Anonymity can cause thorny legal issues where free speech is concerned.  McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission was a 1995 Supreme Court case based on a challenge to an Ohio law imposing a fine on anyone distributing political tracts without specifying who they come from.  This case would pit freedom of speech against political accountability, and in making their decision, justices drew not only on recent case law but even on the colonial history of the United States.

 

Margaret McIntyre's Leaflets

 

McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission may have become a very big case, but it started with a very small fine.  In 1988, Margaret McIntyre, an Ohio resident, had leaflets printed that opposed an increase in school taxes in the school district she lived in.  She handed out the leaflets at the school board meeting.

 

At the time when McIntyre distributed the leaflets, Ohio had a law in place that issued fines for anyone distributing anonymous political literature.  While Margaret McIntyre had been fully responsible for the content of the leaflets, and had only had help in distributing them from her family members, she nonetheless signed them as being from “concerned citizens and taxpayers.”

 

At the time of this school board meeting, a school district employee informed McIntyre of Ohio's statute, and advised her to stop distributing the leaflets unless they were made to conform with the law.  However, at the next meeting, she did the same thing.  After the election had passed, the school district filed a formal complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission, alleging that McIntyre's conduct violated the law.  The elections commission subsequently fined McIntyre $100.

 

Anonymity and Free Speech

 

McIntyre appealed her case to the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, which handled election commission appeals.  The court of appeals said that it was clear that McIntyre had not intended to mislead anyone by distributing the pamphlets, and that the statute could not be applied to a case like hers constitutionally.

 

However, when the elections commission appealed the case to the Ohio Court of Appeals and the Ohio Supreme Court, the decision went in their favor.  The courts ruled that the requirement was content neutral and did not create any additional burdens for the creators of political leaflets, and that the government had an interest in making sure that citizens knew where their political information came from.

 

Supreme Court Ruling

 

The Supreme Court ruled in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission that McIntyre's fine was unconstitutional.  Noting a long history of anonymous political pamphleteering in the United States, including pamphlets written in the lead-up to the American Revolution, the court said that anonymity was often necessary when people wanted to broadcast unpopular political speech.  This is, the court ruled, a valid First Amendment exercise, and anonymous leaflets are protected constitutionally.  In order for the statute to be constitutional, it would have to apply more narrowly—for example, if it were targeted at leaflets that were in some way making fraudulent or libelous statements.

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