The First Amendment is no license to lie

March 26, 1996|By James S. Keat

FANS OF THE First Amendment should take no pleasure in the recent jury verdict in the Ruthann Aron-William Brock defamation suit. Whatever else the verdict was, it wasn't a victory for free speech or anything else in the Bill of Rights, as proclaimed by some adherents who should know better.

The issue that Ms. Aron, the unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate in 1994, raised against her opponent in that race was not freedom of speech. It was not the evils of negative campaigning. It was not about one dirty campaigner's right to object to a dose of her own medicine, nor was it about a sore loser's right to seek redress in court.

The issue was telling the truth. Mr. Brock didn't.

A jury that listened to weeks of legal wrangling, tedious lessons in contemporary campaign tactics and instances of the pot calling the kettle black decided that Mr. Brock had not defamed Ms. Aron.

Defamation -- libel or slander, depending on whether it's written or spoken -- turns on a number of factors. Two of the most important are whether the offending statement was false and whether it injured the complainant's reputation. A jury in Anne Arundel Circuit Court decided that charges Mr. Brock made about Ms. Aron during the bitterly contested campaign were neither false nor injurious.

Word usage

Ms. Aron objected in particular to two statements Mr. Brock made in an angry confrontation. He said she had been ''convicted'' of fraud and had paid ''enormous . . . fines.'' Neither statement was true, using those words in their common, everyday meaning (which is what the judge instructed the jury to follow).

An attorney and real-estate developer in Montgomery County, Ms. Aron plays hardball in business as well as in politics. She has been sued by former business associates. Juries had found her at fault, and she had settled the cases by making substantial settlements.

But these were civil cases, not criminal. Ms. Aron was never ''convicted'' of anything. Nor did she pay ''fines'' in the commonly understood meaning of that term: penalties levied by a court or government agency for violating a law or regulation.

After the verdict, jurors were quoted as saying they decided these terms were not used falsely after consulting dictionaries. I don't know what dictionaries they used; three available to me in a nearby library disagree. Each uses the term ''convict'' in the context of criminal law.

In popular usage, a person is ''convicted'' of a crime. Ms. Aron may have cheated a business associate, but no crime was alleged. And by no stretch of any dictionary definition I have found is settling a civil suit the same as paying a fine.

Where the line is drawn

The jury to the contrary notwithstanding, Mr. Brock used false and injurious words to describe Ms. Aron. The U.S. Supreme Court has decreed that people in public life, like Ms. Aron and Mr. Brock, can be subjected to harsher criticism than private citizens. The court held in a landmark case three decades ago that freewheeling political discourse is an essential element of democratic society. But the court drew the line at lying. Even a public figure can sue successfully for defamation if a statement is made with reckless disregard for the truth.

It matters not that Ms. Aron has no halo over her head when it comes to ugly campaigning. She may well have crossed the line into falsehood herself during the campaign. And it doesn't matter whether the jury in Annapolis should have sent a message about the pollution of our political process by negative campaigning -- even in a year when it threatens to become the norm rather than an example of excess. That wasn't the jury's job.

What does matter is having this case described by lawyers who should know better as a victory for the First Amendment. Representative government such as ours could not possibly function without free speech, including the right to denounce public officials and those who aspire to become one.

The First Amendment's essential role in our political system is poorly understood by most citizens. Too many regard it as protection for journalists, not themselves. In fact it is a bulwark of representative government for all citizens, who could find themselves living under tyranny without it.

The First Amendment allows people to use insulting language in debating public issues. It doesn't provide a refuge for liars. Encouraging citizens to believe that it does could weaken the First Amendment when we really need it.

James S. Keat is a retired Sun editor.

Pub Date: 3/26/96

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