WHAT OTHERS SAY: Curbing campaign lies collides with free speech

Sunday, April 27, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

The "cobra effect" — an attempted solution that worsens the problem — may be applied to legislation designed to prohibit campaign lies.

The U.S. Supreme Court this week heard constitutional arguments on state laws to prohibit people from making reckless falsehoods about candidates seeking election.

Free speech concerns dominated questions from justices, who fear prohibitions will have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights.

We share those concerns and raise others. Among them is determining what is a reckless lie.

The court case was generated by a 2010 campaign accusation that an Ohio representative backed taxpayer-funded abortion because he voted for President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Legislation — federal, state and local — often reflects compromises and includes numerous provisions and amendments. Is it fair to contend a vote for the bill is a vote for everything in it? Is such a statement true, misleading, false, reckless?

A vote also may be strategic. For example, an official may oppose a specific bill because an alternative measure is preferable. Can a critic construe that action as opposition, support or a flip-flop?

Some parliamentary maneuvers only permit opponents to revive an issue. If opposition is merely tactical and does not reflect ideology, is criticism of the action permissible?

Lying is bad behavior and offends honest people. But misleading statements, partial truths, lies and reckless lies have been an integral part of politics since campaigns began.

Challenging campaign statements and insisting on clarity is the business of the people — the voters, media, other candidates — not the courts.

State laws that seek to ease our responsibility will only undermine the founding principle of free speech.

History note: The "cobra effect" refers to an episode during British colonial rule in India when a bounty was offered for every dead cobra. The initial result diminished the population of venomous snakes. Entrepreneurs, however, began raising cobras for the bounty. When the government learned of the practice, it eliminated the bounty. The worthless snakes were released, resulting in a net increase in the population of the deadly cobras.

Copyright Jefferson City News Tribune. Reprinted with permission.

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