Voters know that they need to be careful around election time. They can expect to hear a lot of information from the campaigns and some of it may not be the truth, or at least not the whole truth.

After the election is over, voters are not the only ones who should be cautious. Courts have to be very careful about wading into disputes over the truth of political speech that rightly should only be decided by voters

One of those cases now before the U.S. District Court in Portland involves former state Rep. James Schatz, who is suing a Virginia-based political action committee, which dumped money into his 2010 state Senate race won by Republican Brian Langely.

Schatz says the Republican State Leadership Committee misrepresented actions by the Blue Hill Board of Selectmen, of which he had been a member, in negative advertisements.

The ads said that Schatz was responsible for cancelling the annual town fireworks display and redirecting that money into a political campaign.

In reality, the selectmen spent money approved at town meeting to support the unsuccessful repeal of the school consolidation law, and separately voted to cancel the fireworks over Schatz’s objection.

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The ad was at least misleading, and could even be found to be false and defamatory, but it doesn’t belong in court. Our system should not tolerate a review of political speech by a branch of the government. If it did, every candidate could go before a judge or some other panel to get his opponent censored.

This was why the Maine Supreme Judicial Court found unconstitutional a state law that prohibited candidates from using political endorsements without the endorser’s authorization. The court ruled that the state could not enforce the law without evaluating the content of the speech, which is not a position in which the people of Maine should want their government to be.

We don’t think that gives politicians a license to lie, and we think politicians who lie should be exposed and lose their races. But the antidote to a misleading campaign attack in all but the most extreme cases is fact-checking and vigorous rebuttal, not a libel suit.

The jury that has the last word on the truth of a campaign ad is the one that votes on Election Day, and we should trust the people who select our leaders to determine whether those leaders can be trusted.

 


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