EDITORIAL: Ohio’s ill-conceived political campaign truth squad on trial

Justices to rule whether bureaucrats can decide when a politician is lying

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Politicians lie. Political groups do, too. Exaggeration, obfuscation and misinterpretation is the way politics has always been played. Political questions are not often black or white, but usually a shade of gray.

The Supreme Court will begin deliberating Tuesday on whether the state of Ohio can appoint a truth squad to separate fact from fiction. The state’s election commission was deputized to be the Ministry of Truth under a statute that criminalizes making “a false statement concerning a candidate, either knowing the same to be false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not, if the statement is designed to promote the election, nomination or defeat of the candidate.”

An aggrieved candidate can complain to the commission seeking redress.

The problem with this is readily apparent when the principle is applied on a national scale. How would the Federal Election Commission deal with “Read my lips, no new taxes”? What might the punishment be for claiming, “I did not have sex with that woman”? How many fines ought to be levied against politicians who boast “If you like your plan, you can keep it”?

Sometimes statements that seemed true when spoken only proved to be false years later. It’s unlikely a panel of bureaucrats has the ability to serve as a better jury than the voters empowered to make the decision on whom to trust on Election Day.

Lawmakers in Ohio wrote their law on the assumption that only government agencies are capable of evaluating integrity. That sparked the legal fight between the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group, and former Rep. Steve Driehaus, Ohio Democrat, who claimed to be pro-life and then backed Obamacare’s push to require taxpayers to pay for abortions.

The Susan B. Anthony List intended to place billboards around Mr. Driehaus’ congressional district highlighting his betrayal, but billboard owners feared the speech police and declined to lease the signs.

When Mr. Driehaus lost his bid for re-election, he blamed the radio ads the group broadcast and filed a complaint with the state’s Official State Truthseekers. The Susan B. Anthony List sued to have Ohio’s campaign speech code tossed out as a clear violation of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech.

The idea that the state could banish false and misleading debate by enacting a law is hopelessly naive. In practice, such laws would be used as a weapon against opponents, regardless of who’s lying.

Even the greatest of statesmen are (like most of the rest of us) thin-skinned in the face of criticism. Thomas Jefferson once described how George Washington saw a newspaper editorial cartoon portraying his presidency as “imperial” and “got into one of those passions when he cannot command himself.” Instead of taking the criticism in stride, Jefferson said, the Father of our Country “ran on much of the personal abuse, which had been bestowed on him.”

Smaller public men attempt to channel their rage into laws such as the law in Ohio to commission a government agency to decide who’s “lying” and who’s speaking the truth. The Supreme Court ought to tell Ohio officials to leave such questions to their constituents.

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