Candidates can lie about themselves and their opponents without being punished by the state, because it’s not government’s job to referee political speech.
That was the conclusion Thursday in a ruling by the Washington Supreme Court that struck down a law prohibiting candidates for public office from telling lies in campaign materials.
The ruling was 5-4, with the dissenters arguing that the ruling gives candidates a license “to lie with impunity.”
“What will happen now is the voters will be subject to an incredible onslaught of lies and misinformation at the end of campaigns,” said state Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Potlatch Democrat who was the target of the campaign lie considered by the high court.
The case stemmed from the 2002 election between Sheldon and Marilou Rickert, a Green Party candidate.
The state Public Disclosure Commission fined Rickert $1,000 for violating a 1999 law that said candidates could not circulate political advertising containing a false statement of material fact about another candidate for public office.
Rickert had said Sheldon voted to close the Mission Creek youth camp, which at the time was a medium security prison for teenagers. Rickert had described it as a home for developmentally disabled people.
In fact, Sheldon did the opposite. He voted against the budget bill that cut funding for Mission Creek. The lack of funding led to its closure.
Justice Jim Johnson, who wrote the majority opinion, said the court welcomed the opportunity to reaffirm its previous rulings that “state censorship is not allowed” and that free speech and robust debate cannot thrive if government steps in.
He was joined by Justices Susan Owens, Charles Johnson, Gerry Alexander and Richard Sanders.
Preserving the integrity of the election process, as alleged by the PDC’s lawyers, was not a good enough reason for the state to referee speech in political campaigns, Jim Johnson said.
He said the law would not have applied to “many statements that pose an equal threat to the state’s alleged interest in protection elections.
“Specifically, the statute exempts all statements made by a candidate or his supporters about himself. Basically, a candidate is free to lie about himself, while an opponent will be sanctioned. The PDC presents no compelling reason why a candidate would be less likely to deceive the electorate on matters concerning him- or herself and thus compromise the integrity of the elections process.”
Justices Barbara Madsen, Bobbe Bridge, Tom Chambers and Mary Fairhurst disagreed.
Madsen, who wrote the main dissenting opinion, said state law did not infringe on free speech and the case was not about oppressive government regulation.
“Unfortunately, the majority’s decision is an invitation to lie with impunity,” Madsen wrote. “The majority opinion advances the efforts of those who would turn political campaigns into contests of the best stratagems of lies and deceit, to the end that honest discourse and honest candidates are lost in the maelstrom.”
The American Civil Liberties Union took Rickert’s case to the Supreme Court after a trial court sided with the PDC and an appeals court sided with Rickert.
“In our democracy, candidates are free to make very strong statements criticizing their opponents or the government,” said Kathleen Taylor, executive director of ACLU of Washington. “The court recognized the government itself should not be in the business of vetting the truth and falsity of their political speech.”
Sheldon, who’s also a Mason County commissioner, said he was disappointed by the ruling and expressed some of the same concerns as Madsen, the dissenting justice.
Rickert’s lies didn’t affect his 2002 state Senate election because Sheldon received 78 percent of the vote.
“But what if that had happened in 2006?” he asked. In 2006, state Democratic Party chairman Dwight Pelz and other top county Democratic leaders tried to unseat Sheldon in the primary election because they don’t consider him a true Democrat. Sheldon still won with 57 percent of the vote.
“There’s nothing to stop them (from lying) now,” Sheldon said. “Dwight Pelz can really go crazy now. He can go find a police chief to say ‘Sheldon was arrested for armed robbery in California’ and it would fine.
“By the way, that armed robbery in California would be a lie,” he added with a laugh.
“It’s going to be a whole new world in campaigning,” Sheldon said. “The campaigns are going to go further into the gutter, I think.”
Joseph Turner: 253-597-8436