Should Massachusetts pass legislation outlawing false statements in political ads?
State representative, Dracut Democrat
The public deserves truth in advertising in political advertisements.
I have heard that my bill to penalize candidates or groups that providing false or misleading information to voters is a violation of the free speech provision of the Constitution. But I think our forefathers would be rolling over in their graves if they saw the state of politics today. The hate, lies, and vitriol that occurs from the highest office in the country on down are embarrassing.
People wonder why good people don’t want to get involved in politics. Free speech does not allow you to say anything without repercussions. You can be sued for slander and libel. However, “public persons” must prove a much higher standard to win a suit. People say, ‘You won, what’s the harm?’ But do we have to wait for the liar to win to stop this dishonorable practice? How do you prove whether voters would have voted differently but for the lies?
Do I expect that if my colleagues agreed with my idea, that the bill would pass exactly as drafted? No, as with all other bills, it would most likely get amended in committee, on the floor after debate, or in counsel’s office.
Some people argue that lying has gone on so long in politics, it’s just a part of life. But it doesn’t have to be and shouldn’t be accepted. I’m not talking about criticism of a person’s voting record or stand, just about lying about someone’s record or stand.
Thirty years ago, I started in politics working for someone I admired a great deal. He told me, “If you can’t get elected by who you are, what you’ve done, and what you want to do, you don’t deserve to be elected.” I have followed that sage advice. In 22 years of campaigns, I have only published campaign ads about me, what I’ve done, and what I want to do. I have never even referred to an opponent in an advertisement, never mind lied about them or their record. It’s too bad that others won’t do the same.
If we require truth in advertisements for retail products, why not for those who run for office? Voters are consumers and are owed the truth.
Jeanne M. Kempthorne
Salem resident; attorney and mediator; member of Common Cause Massachusetts
A legislative proposal on Beacon Hill seeks to deter and punish political dirty tricks that might derail a candidacy, a laudable motive. But this bill is not the right approach. It is unworkable, unwise, and unconstitutional. This ill-conceived bill could crater a popular candidacy and even end a political career on the flimsiest grounds.
Even if it did not run afoul of the First Amendment, the bill is woefully vague. It does not say whether an aggrieved political opponent may sue or whether the attorney general or some other agency would be charged with policing the accuracy of political advertising. It does not specify the standard of proof: whether a mere preponderance of the evidence is sufficient, or whether a stricter standard is required. It does not specify the tribunal for such charges, nor whether the accused would be entitled to a jury trial.
It does not even require that the error be defamatory. There is no exception for insignificant, negligent, or even innocent misstatements. The bill imposes the same penalty for misstatements important and insignificant, intentional and unintentional. The mandatory penalty — forfeiture of the entire campaign fund to the state — is unrelated to the actual damage. It is disproportionate and punitive.
The legislation is a clumsy, dangerous attempt to bypass the constitutional framework governing libel, a framework established more than half a century ago to enforce the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and press. Libel laws had been commonly misused to squelch criticism of public officials; during the 1960s, Southern public officials and police sought crippling damage awards against the press for reporting on civil rights violations and police brutality.
In the landmark case of New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court held that public officials must prove “actual malice” — a reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the statement — in order to prove a libel case. The “actual malice” standard was later extended to cases brought by public figures and matters of public concern.
Robust debate in a democracy is essential. While there is no value in false information, our laws must allow ample room for error in order to ensure that political debate is not deterred by fear of reprisal.
Yes: 90.76% (275 votes)
No: 9.24% (28 votes)