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The Boston Globe

Opinion

TOM KEANE

Allowing political lies is better than the alternative

The Supreme Court sent an Ohio law outlawing political lying back to a lower court in a rare unanimous vote.

AFP/Getty Images

The Supreme Court sent an Ohio law outlawing political lying back to a lower court in a rare unanimous vote.

Ohio is an earnest state, and it likes its politics clean and proper: Tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It’s the law, in fact. Political campaigners who fib, mislead, or stretch the truth could find themselves in jail. That’s right: If you’re a politician in Ohio, it’s illegal to lie on the stump.

It’s intriguing to entertain the idea of the state’s aspirations applying to other aspects of our lives: “Does this make me look heavy?” “I’m seeking other opportunities.” “It’s me, not you.”

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OK, so maybe we need a few deceptions to sustain ourselves. Still, in this era of mud-slinging, dirty politics, and unsavory money, why not follow Ohio’s model when it comes to campaigns? Is it really too much to insist that politicians do such an elementary thing as tell the truth?

Ohio’s rules are not unique; a number of other states have in place various truth-telling requirements. But the state is in the news because the law is under challenge. Just last week it lost at the Supreme Court — in a rare unanimous vote — but the decision was procedural, handing the issue back to a lower court. So whether the law ultimately passes constitutional muster is still unknown.

Let me assure you, however: It won’t pass constitutional muster.

The thrust of the First Amendment is that no one individual or government agency gets to decide the truth.

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One of those opposed is satirist P.J. O’Rourke, who submitted a friend of the court brief that, in essence, maintained that lying is a hallowed part of American politics. O’Rourke opened his essay with a series of quotes: “I am not a crook,” “Read my lips: no new taxes,” “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” “Mission accomplished,” and, of course, “If you like your health care plan, you can keep it.”

Funny stuff. Yet are these lies we really want to defend? Wouldn’t we all be better off if Richard Nixon had admitted Watergate, George H.W. Bush had acknowledged the need to raise revenues, Bill Clinton had confessed infidelity, George W. Bush had said Iraq would be an interminable slog, and Barack Obama had described health care reform’s cons as wells as pros? Certainly our cynicism would have dropped a notch.

Ohio’s effort to promote honesty is far-reaching. Suppose you call your opponent a “nut”? The state prohibits falsely claiming someone has a “record of treatment or confinement for mental disorder.”

How about terming a state official an “ignorant hack”? That violates two sections — one about “formal schooling or training,” the other relating to occupations. The normal and glorious give-and-take of politics — insults, caricatures, and exaggerations — would disappear. Campaigns would become dull indeed. But maybe, you think, that’s a worthwhile trade-off: lose some rough-and-tumble and gain some civility in return.

The real problems with Ohio’s law are these: Who knows what the truth is? And who gets to decide?

Were all of the famous presidential quotes above really lies? Each permits a different interpretation. Nixon was blind to his flaws. H.W. changed his mind. Clinton was drawing the same line between sex/non-sex that teenagers have used for years. W. was referring to one phase of the Iraq adventure. Obama was glossing over details.

Agree or disagree with any of what those politicians said, it’s hard to imagine any of them jailed for making these or similarly questionable claims.

The details of the Ohio court case neatly illustrate the problem. The plaintiff, an anti-abortion group, wanted to post a billboard saying a congressman’s vote for national health care amounted to support for “taxpayer-funded abortion.” The offended pol threatened prosecution. The plaintiff backed off. The proposed billboard wasn’t a lie, per se — it was more just a convoluted argument. But the threat of prosecution was enough to shut it up.

Would Ohio also prohibit doubters of climate change from voicing their views? Would it have in the past refused to countenance arguments that marriage could be between those of the same sex?

The thrust of the First Amendment is that no one individual or government agency gets to decide the truth. If you think folks wrong, deceptive, or untruthful, speak up. Rebut them. Ultimately, speech competes against speech. If and when this case finally gets decided by the Supreme Court, Ohio will deservedly lose. The US Constitution protects lying because the alternative is worse.

Tom Keane can be reached at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.

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