Monday, June 16, 2014

When Courts Let Lying Prevail

Nothing good can come of it:

...If ever that could be said of a Supreme Court opinion, it would be Monday’s unanimous decision in Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus. The case seemed, at first glance, to concern the right to lie about politics. As properly decided by the Court, however, it only had to do with the abstruse doctrine of “standing to sue,” which requires a plaintiff challenging a law to show an “actual injury,” not just a political objection to the law.
The plaintiffs want to challenge an Ohio state law that bans “a false statement concerning the voting record of a candidate or public official” within a specified period before a primary or general election “knowing the same to be false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” (Their petition counted at least 15 other states that have “false statement” laws.) Because there is no action pending against them now, a lower court held they had no standing.
The issue presented to the Court thus was narrow. That may be why the opinion was delivered by Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas has idiosyncratic views on free speech, and rarely gets to write a majority opinion on a First Amendment question. His opinion said only that a political group that might be penalized down the road for making “false” statements in future campaigns had standing to go forward now with a lawsuit...

The problem with this decision is subtle but important: while it looks like it gives PACs and candidates the right to fight back against governmental oversight with too broad and vague a reach, it lays the groundwork for elections to be filled with the worst sort of mudslinging and negative campaigning.  While we already have a huge problem with negative campaigning, there is at least a method in place to stop or limit such bad behavior through the threat of sanctions by state-level authorities.  This ruling can be the first step towards eliminating such authority down the road.

The Court doesn't seem to recognize - when you look at other recent rulings making it easier to lie to the public - the implications of lying in the public forum.  They're thinking about the specific harm against an accused or a victim of the lie, or the specific harm against the person or group making that lie.  They're not looking at the effect that lie has on everybody else.

Our voters, our citizenry, rely on being well-informed - informed to the facts, and with accuracy - in order to make decisions when voting for elected officials and voting for public referendums.  When they're being told falsehoods about a candidate - "Oh, that one eats babies!" - or a political issue - "Gay marriage causes hurricanes and earthquakes!" - it confuses the public dialog, making it more difficult for reasonable, common sense political fixes to get made.

We're still dealing with the massive fallout of one of the biggest falsehood campaigns our elected officials pulled: we're still coping with the lies Bush and Cheney and their administration spread across the nation's media outlets about Iraq being a backer of Bin Laden and with Saddam wielding an arsenal of WMDs.  More than 12 years later, we've got a radically divided Iraq on the verge of sectarian collapse because we got lied into an invasion and ill-planned occupation, and as the nation most responsible for the damage Iraq is in now, we're looked at paying the costs of trying to keep that war-torn nation afloat... even as the liars who got us into the mess are making more noise about what to do (bomb 'em some more, for the most part) about it.  All because those liars never got held accountable, because they kept selling their snake oil and their BS to the electorate still voting themselves or their allies back into office giving them political cover to lie some more.

This is the damage lying can cause in politics: lying distorts, lying ill-informs, lying kills.

We need stronger laws in place to stop candidates and campaigns from making false accusations and outright lies.  At some point, the facts have to matter.  The truth has to matter.

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