Voters Deserve Truth in Political Ads

BY DIANE DIMOND

Did all the snarky campaign ads on television make you absolutely sick? Yeah, me, too. I’m glad this mid-term election over!

Nasty cracks, smarmy innuendo, selective editing of opponents’ interviews and downright lies. Isn’t there something that should be done to a candidate who deliberately tries to deceive the electorate?

Actually, 16 states have laws that punish candidates and independent organizations who recklessly make false statements during an election. That’s the good news.

The bad news: In the first real test of those so-called political-lie laws, the courts ruled they are an unconstitutional violation of freedom of speech.

Yes, you read that right. The First Amendment gives us all a constitutional right to lie.

I’m not for anything that erodes our First Amendment rights. But doesn’t it sound odd that the law protects those who deliberately choose to deceive the electorate?

After hearing a case against Ohio’s law (which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and back to the U.S. District level) the courts ruled, in effect, that a candidate can fling falsehoods against their opponent right and left without consequence. The U.S. Supreme Court declared no government entity — in this case the Ohio Elections Commission — may act as an arbiter of truth.

The Ohio case dates back to 2010 and stems from a billboard that the anti-abortion group The Susan B. Anthony List wanted to put up, denouncing a House candidate’s support for taxpayer-funded abortions. The candidate, incumbent Rep. Steve Driehaus, filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission saying it just wasn’t true and pointed out that public funds for abortion haven’t been legal since the 1970s. The billboard company refused to accept the group’s money, and Driehaus ultimately withdrew his complaint after he lost the election. But The Susan B Anthony List group, claiming their right to free speech had been violated, pressed on demanding a day in court.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Black wrote the final word in September. “We can all agree that lies are bad,” Black said.

“The problem is, at least with respect to some political speech, that there is no clear way to determine whether a political statement is a lie or the truth, and we certainly do not want the government deciding what is political truth.”

Huh? If someone seeking public office falsely charged their opponent had taken a bribe, hurt a child or had been involved in a criminal enterprise, shouldn’t their lie be exposed so citizens could cast an informed vote?

Sure, the aggrieved candidate could file a defamation lawsuit, but the election would be long over before it ever wound its way through the already clogged civil court system.

I’m not for anything that erodes our First Amendment rights. But it sounds unfair that the law protects those who deliberately choose to deceive voters as they prepare to practice a sacred duty — casting a vote.

Some would say let the politicians go ahead and misrepresent the facts; it all works out in the end. But does it really? I’m betting that, like me, you don’t have time to double-check every statement you read or hear in a political ad.

The government currently regulates truth in labeling (like we find on foodstuffs, clothing and medications) and regulates truth in advertising (from airlines and alcohol to tobacco and funerals), so why isn’t there a way to regulate the accuracy of political ads? Perhaps an independent panel of non-partisan truth-seekers who scrutinize political messages and report back on their accuracy. It would be a way for voters to keep track of who is truthful, and it could result in a substantial cutback in those omnipresent attack ads. What politician wants to be branded as an exaggerator or liar?

As it stands now, it remains up to us, the voters, to analyze the tsunami of candidates’ claims and figure out for ourselves whether they are truths, half-truths or downright lies. Doesn’t sound like a great system, does it?

Now that the courts have struck down the Ohio law we’re left to wonder what will happen in the other 15 states with similar laws. The Susan B. Anthony List has vowed to challenge the laws wherever they exist, and it doesn’t look good for those who value truth.

Rockland resident Diane Dimond is a syndicated columnist, author, regular guest on TV news programs, and correspondent for Newsweek/Daily Beast. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net or reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net