Originally created 02/22/99

Bill would ban campaign lies



ATLANTA -- The old joke that you can tell a politician is lying because his lips are moving doesn't amuse Rep. Jeanette Jamieson. She's a politician who believes it should be illegal for politicians to lie.

Ms. Jamieson and three colleagues in the Georgia House are pushing a bill to ban fibbing on the campaign trail.

The measure would carry no fine or jail time. But it would brand candidates as violators of state ethics laws for bending the truth -- whether in boasting about themselves or slamming their opponents.

"If you have to tell the truth about the fat content in a hamburger, why should you not have to tell the truth about another individual who is offering for public office?" said Ms. Jamieson, D-Toccoa.

The proposal raises constitutional questions about whether political lies are protected speech.

It also reflects the frustration of lawmakers who are still smarting from the November elections, saying opponents smeared them with mud that was high on vitriol and short on facts.

Almost nonstop, Gov. Roy Barnes accused Republican Guy Millner of using "lies and distortions" in his attacks on Mr. Barnes' long legislative record. Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor has a slander suit pending against GOP opponent Mitch Skandalakis, who aired ads implying that Mr. Taylor had been hospitalized for drug abuse.

"When the campaign was over, we just sort of shook our heads in disgust and wondered, `What the hell?"' Ms. Jamieson said. "So why don't we do something about it?"

Similar laws enacted in other states have proven controversial.

Last year, the Supreme Court in Washington state struck down a 1984 law banning false political advertising, saying it infringed on free speech. And lawmakers in Nevada are trying to repeal a 1997 campaign-truth law that has resulted in stiff fines for some officials.

The Nevada Ethics Commission fined North Las Vegas Constable Herb Brown $10,000 last month for a campaign ad in which Mr. Brown claimed to be "the only qualified candidate." The commission found the ad misled voters.

Ms. Jamieson's proposal would authorize Georgia's Ethics Commission, which enforces state campaign finance laws, to hear complaints about false campaigning.

Though it has no real teeth, the measure could still violate the First Amendment's protection of political speech, said William Lee, a professor of communications law at the University of Georgia.

"Even if there aren't sanctions in the sense of fines or jail time, I think the fact of being hauled before this commission and having to spend time and money to defend yourself could be considered a chilling effect," Mr. Lee said.

The heads of Georgia's Republican and Democratic parties both said they don't want the Ethics Commission serving as referees in spats over mudslinging.

"In the end it's up to the voters and not the Legislature to punish what they consider illegitimate speech," state GOP Chairman Rusty Paul said.

"The best antidote for false campaigning is the truth," said David Worley, Georgia's Democratic chairman. "My understanding of the First Amendment is that it allows candidates to say what they want no matter how wrong they may be."

The bill awaits a hearing in the House Rules Committee. Some legislative leaders say they agree with the measure's intent to rein in the free-for-all nastiness of political campaigns.

"When false information with intent is used, I think a person ought to have to answer to some sort of complaint within the due process of the Ethics Commission," said House Rules Chairman Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus. "But it's a thin line on freedom of speech."