Thursday, October 4, 2007

You Can't Say "You Can't Say That"

In a 5 to 4 split, the Washington Supreme Court has ruled that legislation allowing for sanctions against candidates who deliberately lie about their opponents while campaigning is an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

"The notion that the government, rather than the people, may be the final arbiter of truth in political debate is fundamentally at odds with the First Amendment."
Justice James Johnson
I've never been one for "slippery slope" arguments, so I'm not going to start claiming that as of tomorrow, all sorts of libel and fraud will be commonplace, but as explained the Supreme Court decision, the statute prohibits any person from sponsoring, with actual malice, a political advertisement containing a false statement of material fact about a candidate for public office. I have difficulty with the idea that political speech is so important that candidates should be freely allowed to intentionally make false statements about challengers. The remedies, as the supreme court would have it, are challenges to the information by the person lied about, or a defamation suit.

Leaving the public to sort out the truth of every claim made about an candidate by an opponent doesn't strike me as a recipe for truth in politics. It seems more like an invitation to a shouting match, with each side raising the volume. And seems that it only help with easily verifiable facts, and things that can be proven one way or the other in time for the election itself - I would be unsurprised to find that there is an increase in the number of dubious claims in the final days of an election, when their isn't time for an exhaustive investigation to be completed.

Not being a lawyer, I don't know how a defamation suit would work in such a case. But it seems to me that if the intent of a candidate for public office is to demonstrate that they are more fit for the office than other candidates, how does lying turn such a position into defamation? I might have to ask around about this...

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