False Ads: There Oughtta Be A Law! Or — Maybe Not

‘Candidates have a legal right to lie to voters just about as
much as they want,’ writes Brooks Jackson, director of the
Annenberg Political Fact Check. There are laws that protect
consumers from misleading product pitches, but few laws to protect
voters from misleading campaign ads. Miss Cleo, the TV psychic, was
fined $5 million and forced to pay $500 million to callers to her
telephone psychic service, callers who were under the impression
they were getting a ‘free reading.’

So what happened when 1998 Ohio gubernatorial candidate Bob Taft
aired an ad falsely accusing his rival Lee Fisher of ‘cutting
crime-fighting employees by 15%?’ The bipartisan Ohio Elections
Commission did everything right: they met and made a speedy
decision well before the election — they ruled that Bob Taft’s ad
was in violation of the state law against false campaign ads. And
then they issued their punishment: a letter of reprimand. Taft won
the election.

Situations like this occur all over the country, and Jackson
reports that it’s because of a combination of the First Amendment’s
guarantee of free speech and the Federal Communications Act, which
says that if a broadcaster airs one candidate’s ad, it must air the
opponent’s ad as well. This means networks are legally bound to air
ads, even when the ads contain lies or outrageous content. Jackson
provides the appalling example of J.B. Stoner’s 1972 ad in Atlanta,
Georgia, which contained free and gleeful uses of racial slurs. The
FCC forced Atlanta broadcasters to air the ad.

Does the First Amendment guarantee candidates the right to say
whatever they want? Yes, says Brooks Jackson. The Supreme Court
ruled in 1971 that ‘it can hardly be doubted that the
constitutional guarantee (of free speech) has its fullest and most
urgent application precisely to the conduct of campaigns for
political office.’ We all agree that freedom of speech is extremely
important in America, but, Jackson writes, it has made it very
difficult for states to make and enforce laws about campaign

‘All this,’ concludes Jackson, ‘should tell voters that —
legally — it’s pretty much up to them to sort out who’s lying and
who’s not in a political campaign.’ Journalists have a role too.
Jackson’s Annenberg Political Fact Check is a nonpartisan,
nonprofit resource for voters. Their latest work has debunked
Kerry’s claim that our war in Iraq has cost $200 billion — not
yet, says factcheck.org, and diffused Zell Miller’s accusations
that Kerry won’t spend money on defense — that was only true 20
years ago.
Harry Sheff

Go there >>
Ads: There Oughtta Be A Law! Or — Maybe Not

Related Links:

Comments? Story tips?
Write a letter to the editor

Like this? Want more?Subscribe to Utne

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.