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Judge dismisses case of former rep suing pro-life group over election loss

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Shown here is former Ohio Rep. Steve Driehaus.AP

A federal judge has ruled against an ex-Ohio congressman who sued the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List for contributing to his election defeat. 

In the unusual case, which former Rep. Steve Driehaus launched two years ago, the Ohio Democrat tried to hold Susan B. Anthony List accountable for spreading "lies" about him -- ultimately inflicting, he claimed, "reputational" and "economic" harm. 

The defamation case itself raised questions about the limits of rapid-fire ads, billboards and other campaign literature in a political race. In this case, Driehaus complained that the Susan B. Anthony List unfairly accused him of voting for taxpayer-funded abortions when he backed the federal health care overhaul. Driehaus campaigned as a pro-life Democrat. 

But in a court ruling Friday, U.S. District Judge Timothy Black dismissed the case. He effectively determined that in the area of political campaigns, where the "principles of free speech and truth collide most violently," truth must be determined in the "marketplace of ideas" -- not the courts. 

"Sometimes even a person with excellent vision does not see the forest for the trees," Black wrote, in a rather poetic opening to his ruling. He continued: "However, that precise and robotic analysis of each of the factors required for defamation caused the Court to focus only on the trees and ultimately not to see the forest. Here, the forest is the right to free speech under the First Amendment, even false speech, when it applies to politics." 

Black wrote that associating a political candidate "with a mainstream political position, even if false, cannot constitute defamation." 

The congressman's original complaint cited statements dating back to August about his record on abortion. Among them was a set of billboards the Susan B. Anthony List planned to put up in October claiming he voted for "taxpayer-funded abortion." At the time, Driehaus filed a complaint with the state election board over the billboards, which did not go up, claiming they broke a state law prohibiting false statements. That battle dragged on until, after the election, Driehaus dropped the complaint and instead filed the defamation suit. 

The ex-congressman claimed he was going after the group because, according to him, they crossed the line and lied. 

"The First Amendment is not and never has been an invitation to concoct falsehoods aimed at depriving a person of his livelihood," his original complaint said. 

Driehaus' attorney so far has not returned a request for comment on the court's latest ruling. 

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA List, said in a statement that, while the group is "pleased" with the outcome, "this was a protracted legal battle that was taxing on our resources and should never have happened in a country that enshrines free speech."