'More speech' the right response


In 1997, Bill Raggio, the Reno Republican who served as majority leader of the Nevada Senate for many years, rammed through legislation that gave the state Ethics Commission the power to punish any person who made a false statement about a political candidate.

The law was supposed to discourage negative campaigning.

The statute was of dubious constitutionality to say the least -- and was, of course, abused. Its first application led to a fine against a state Senate candidate for a campaign flier that ethics commissioners admitted wasn't false, but thought might have been misleading.

For almost a decade, Sen. Raggio resisted all efforts to kill his so-called "truth squad." It took a federal court ruling in 2005 to finally shut it down.

But Mr. Raggio's inclinations remain ingrained in many politicians. Consider a recent court case in Maine involving a legislative candidate who sought to punish his political opponents for criticizing him.

In 2010, James Schatz, a Democrat, sought a seat in the Maine Senate. During the election, a Republican political action committee mounted an advertising campaign against Mr. Schatz, hitting him for votes he had cast as a town selectman.

One of the ads implied a link between the town selectmen voting to give $10,000 to a political organization but later citing a lack of funds when voting to cancel the town's Fourth of July fireworks show.

Mr. Schatz, who lost the election, sued. He claimed the group acted with actual malice and that the ads implied he stole public funds.

Last week, Mr. Schatz lost again -- this time in court. Judges on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that while the ads made no obvious link between the two votes, the attacks were nevertheless protected by the First Amendment.

"Defamation law does not require that combatants for public office act like war-time neutrals," the court held.

"Quite the contrary. Provided that they do not act with actual malice, they can badmouth their opponents, hammering them with unfair and one-sided attacks -- remember, speaking out on political issues, especially criticizing public officials and hopefuls for public office, is a core freedom protected by the First Amendment. ... And absent actual malice, more speech, not damages, is the right strike-back against superheated or false rhetoric."

Amen. Politics has always been a blood sport. Efforts to suppress speech in the name of shielding precious egos must be resisted. If you're afraid to get your feelings hurt, you'd be better off on the sidelines.

 

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