Outlawing Campaign Lies Treads on Free Speech

     (CN) - A Minnesota law prohibiting the distribution of campaign literature that intentionally spreads lies to sway an election tramples free speech, the 8th Circuit ruled.
     Citizens for Quality Education and 281 Care Committee brought the challenge in Minneapolis, claiming that the Minnesota Fair Campaign Practices Act violates their First Amendment rights by inhibiting their ability to speak freely against the school-funding ballot initiatives they oppose.
     The law makes it a misdemeanor to distribute campaign material containing knowingly false statements intended to defeat a ballot question.
     A federal judge ruled for the state last year, finding that "the ballot provisions in Minn. Stat. § 211B.06 reflect a legislative judgment on behalf of Minnesotan citizens to guard against the malicious manipulation of the political process."
     "The court finds that the provisions at issue are narrowly tailored to serve this compelling interest," U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery wrote.
     While the 8th Circuit found Tuesday that the state has a compelling interest in preserving "fair and honest" elections and preventing fraud, it nevertheless deemed the disputed statute overbroad.
     "It is in the political arena where robust discourse must take place. And although there are certain outright falsities one could envision in the discussion of a proposed ballot question, especially when considering there are hotly debated sides to every issue, it seems that too often in that situation, the 'falsity' deemed by one person actionable under § 211B.06 will be a statement of conjecture about the future state of affairs should the ballot question pass or fail," Judge Clarence Beam wrote for the three-judge panel. "Despite the certainty of conjecture, however, the state may not prevent others from 'resort[ing] to exaggeration, to vilification of men who have been, or are, prominent in church or state, and even to false statement.' Such 'back and forth' is the way of the world in election discourse."
     The St. Louis, Mo.-based federal appeals court focused on the burden of the proceedings required to defend oneself against an allegation of making false statements in election literature, which may itself hamper electoral speech.
     In addition, real political damage may arise just from the allegation of false speech, which may ultimately be frivolous, but can be filed "at the whim" of anyone willing to file a complaint under oath.
     "The citizenry, not the government, should be the monitor of falseness in the political arena," Beam wrote. "Citizens can digest and question writings or broadcasts in favor or against ballot initiatives just as they are equally poised to weigh counterpoints."