WASHINGTON, D.C.–A state law prohibiting distribution of anonymous electioneering pamphlets is unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in late April.
The high court invalidated the Ohio statute which had resulted in a $100 fine against the late Margaret McIntyre, who distributed unsigned leaflets in April 1988, urging Westerville, Ohio, voters to reject a proposed school-tax levy.
It also overturned a decision by Ohio’s Supreme Court which had ruled that the burden on the First Amendment was reasonable because the purpose of the law was to identify people who had circulated false statements.
Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, called anonymity “a shield from the tyranny of the majority,” and said anonymous publications have been important to “the progress of mankind.”
The right to publish anonymously “unquestionably outweighs” any state interest in disclosure, Stevens said. The First Amendment protects advocates of a position who choose anonymity to avoid persecution, or to persuade without allowing the reader to prejudge the message, he wrote.
In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said laws similar to Ohio’s exist in all other states except California and in the federal government. They ought to be presumed constitutional, he said. He also debunked the idea that anonymity is “sacrosanct.” Anonymity facilitates wrong by eliminating accountability, he said. Justice Rehnquist joined his dissent.
A school district official who supported the tax levy reported McIntyre’s leafletting to the state election commission which levied the fine against her. Neither the complaint nor the election commission’s decision indicated that the pamphlets were false.
McIntyre died before she could appeal the state decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, but her husband appealed as the executor of her estate. (McIntyre v. Ohio; Counsel: David Goldberger, Columbus, Ohio.)
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.