“It’s easy to tell when a politician is lying: Their lips move.”
That’s a quote from the 1980s science fiction television series “Max Headroom.” And while we may not share that cynicism in its entirety, it’s hardly a secret that citizens need to treat many political declarations with a certain degree of skepticism.
That’s particularly true during campaign season, when the stakes are higher and the pressure to twist the truth takes its toll. At these times, the judicious citizen will recognize that many statements - both for and against given candidates - may be something less than accurate.
We bring this up because the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case next week regarding an Ohio law that makes it illegal to knowingly make false statements regarding a political candidate. The court is not expected to rule on the constitutionality of the law; rather, the issue at hand is whether opponents can challenge it before being charged.
The specific issue in the case involves a proposal to place billboard ads against a Democratic congressman who supported President Obama’s health care reforms. The ads claimed the measure supported taxpayer-funded abortions.
The congressman claimed the ads were false and threatened action. As a result, the billboard owner refused to place them, fearing legal consequences.
Now, the backers of those ads are challenging the law, and the Supreme Court must decide if they can do so, even if no official action was taken against them.
But the larger question - even if it’s not addressed by the high court this time around - is this: Can the legal system create a practical mechanism for punishing political lies?
We doubt it. When it comes to politics, truth - unfortunately - is often in the eye of the beholder. And the dividing line between what’s false and what’s merely slanted for political gain can be a fine one indeed.
The concern is that political speech will be squelched if people are fearful of saying the wrong thing or phrasing it in the wrong way. A free society must operate with the view that it’s better to put up with some distortions instead of stifling legitimate debate.
So we strongly question the constitutionality of the Ohio law, even though we understand where it’s coming from. Campaign ads, especially those of the video variety, seem to be growing increasingly outrageous.
And, unfortunately, thanks to Supreme Court rulings that have weakened campaign financing rules, the public needs to brace itself for increasing amounts of nonsense during campaign season. The solution, however, is to call out offending ads, not to have their makers arrested.
New Castle (Pa.) News