Missouri state Rep. Joe Don McGaugh is as fed up with political campaign lies as you are, and thinks he can fix the problem.
In early December, the Carrollton Republican introduced legislation making it illegal to knowingly publish a false statement in a broadcast or print ad about a candidate for statewide office or the legislature.
If passed, judges and juries would determine whether candidates have told the truth — with damages of up to $20,000 for those who fail the test.
“Too much of the time we use our (campaign) money to sling mud,” McGaugh said. “No one likes dirty politics.”
McGaugh said his bill involves only relevant statements that can be proved false “with reasonable certainty.” Name-calling, profanity and opinion would still be allowed.
Legal experts, candidates and campaign consultants scoffed at McGaugh’s idea.
“I understand the sentiment behind it,” said Kansas City mayor and candidate Sly James, “but if we have to pass legislation telling people that they shouldn’t lie to the public about important issues, we’ve already lost. And really, there’s no way to enforce it.”
McGaugh’s bill would allow eligible voters to file suit against allegedly false campaign ads. Any damages awarded by a court would go to the voter.
Candidates could avoid the penalty by retracting the offending statement “through the same print or broadcast medium” within 14 days of making it, as long as the retraction is made two weeks before Election Day.
Damages would be limited to the cost of running a retraction, or a cash award.
Courts could enjoin candidates from making the false statements in the future.
Opponents say it sounds like a legal morass. “This bill would clog our courts with frivolous, politically motivated lawsuits,” said consultant Marcus Leach.
In September a federal judge threw out an Ohio law penalizing false political statements.
“At times, there is no clear way to determine whether a political statement is a lie or the truth,” wrote U.S. District Judge Timothy Black. “What is certain, however, is that we do not want the government … deciding what is political truth.”
Sarah Rossi of the American Civil Liberties Union in Missouri called McGaugh’s proposal a “blatant violation” of the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantee.
“It would be a waste of effort and money to pass it,” she said.
McGaugh concedes constitutional problems.
“It’s got some issues,” he said. “But I think this is a good first step to get us back on the right track.”
Some political consultants were intrigued — a little.
“It is an interesting idea,” said Aaron Trost of Singularis, a consulting firm. “My initial concern would be that this law, if passed, could be abused by liberal judges to intervene on behalf of political campaigns they quietly support.”
McGaugh says he’s made similar proposals in past sessions, and the idea is inching closer to approval. He may try to attach it to ethics legislation next year.
“When the people speak, we make the changes,” he said.
The Star’s Lynn Horsley contributed to this report.