Judge says Taft’s ad can stay on the air; Fisher requests lifting of order

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

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COLUMBUS — The judge who pulled an allegedly fraudulent Bob Taft campaign ad from Ohio’s television airwaves last week has agreed to let it back on.

Judge John Connor of Franklin County Common Pleas Court yesterday lifted the temporary restraining order he issued Saturday at the request of Mr. Taft’s gubernatorial opponent, Democrat Lee Fisher. The reason, he said: Ohioans and the media have been talking about the ad, and people now have enough information to judge for themselves whether it is truthful.

“I feel the public has been informed,” Judge Connor said during a hearing. “There has been a full and open debate about the ad throughout the state of Ohio.”

The disputed ad quotes an article from the Oct. 6 Cleveland Plain Dealer. A narrator quotes the article as saying “Taft didn’t raise the taxes.”

The ad was meant to refute an earlier Fisher ad claiming taxes had risen while Mr. Taft was a Hamilton County commissioner.

The Plain Dealer article actually said: “But Taft didn’t raise the taxes himself.”

The Fisher campaign said that the editing out of “but” and “himself” constituted a fraudulent change in the article’s meaning.

They took the case to court during the weekend, and Judge Connor agreed, banning the 30-second ad until yesterday’s hearing. But the ads played on TV stations through Sunday because advertising personnel at the stations did not work during the weekend.

Both sides attempted to spin Judge Connor’s decision their way. Those on Mr. Fisher’s side called it a victory because the judge reaffirmed his belief that the ad contained false and misleading material.

“This shows that you can’t use the First Amendment to protect false political speech,” said Alan Melamed, Fisher campaign chairman.

Meanwhile, the Taft campaign called it a “vindication,” even as Mr. Taft’s lawyers filed a motion saying Judge Connor should remove himself from the case because he had called the ad “false” and “misleading.”

“I am relieved that our rights have been restored,” Mr. Taft said in a statement. The Republican said the ad will begin running again immediately, in what his staff called a medium-to-heavy purchase of air time.

Judge Connor, whose action had come under fire from free-speech experts, criticized both sides in the gubernatorial campaign for being “too negative.”

“I think this gubernatorial campaign has reached new lows in advertising,” he said. “If there is a low voter turnout, I think the type of political campaign going on will be a reason for it.”

The Taft campaign had been critical of the judge for not reclusing himself from the case after it was learned that his campaign had given $125 to Mr. Fisher’s campaign. But Judge Connor said that he had volunteered the donation information to Mr. Taft’s lawyers before Saturday’s hearing and told them they should make an issue of the donation if they wanted to.

They did not raise the issue at Saturday’s hearing, although their statements to the press later repeatedly mentioned the donation.

“This isn’t something the Taft people came up with,” Judge Connor said. “I’ve attended more Republican fund-raisers than Democratic fund-raisers over the years.”

Mr. Fisher’s attorneys said the donation issue was meaningless because many judges throughout the state had given money to a candidate.

Three Supreme Court justices have given money to or received money from either Mr. Taft or Mr. Fisher, they said.

Yesterday, The Plain Dealer printed an editorial condemning the ad, saying the sentence from its article was taken “out of context” and that “Taft should have known better.”

Despite the lifting of the temporary restraining order, the case is still alive before Judge Connor, who must now rule on motions from Mr. Taft’s attorneys seeking to get him off the case.

Mr. Taft’s attorneys asked the Ohio Supreme Court to transfer jurisdiction in the matter to the Ohio Elections Commission.

The timing means that yesterday’s action was probably the last in court before the Nov. 3 election. The elections commission could take action earlier.

Hours after the hearing, the Fisher camp unveiled its newest commercial, which officials said was intended to respond to a growing public dissatisfaction with the negative tone of the campaign.

The 30-second spot, scheduled to begin airing last night, opens with bold, block letters on the screen: “Don’t believe Taft.”

It then mentions the temporary restraining order and an investigation the Ohio Elections Commission is conducting on another Taft television ad.

But the ad shifts quickly into a more positive vein, specifically Mr. Fisher’s health care proposals. The candidate is pictured holding a senior citizen’s hand and speaking at a town hall.