Truth or consequences

April 01, 2007

Political campaign literature will seldom be mistaken for the gospel truth, but last November's "sample ballots" indicating former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele were Democrats and that they had been endorsed by a number of prominent black leaders crossed a line. Various versions of these handouts, which were widely distributed on Election Day in Baltimore and Prince George's County by African-Americans bused in from out of state, didn't change the outcome for either candidate, but in terms of sheer brazenness, it set a new - low - standard.

Outlawing such tactics can be fraught with peril - the right to free speech is seldom, if ever, more important than in political campaigns - but such a breathtakingly cynical abuse of that privilege ought to carry consequences. Fortunately, lawmakers in Annapolis have crafted legislation that appears to thread the needle by simply banning flagrant lies of a specific nature.

The legislation pending in the state Senate would make it a crime for any candidate, political committee or other organization to disseminate campaign material that fraudulently misrepresents the time and place of an election, the eligibility or qualifications of voters, an explicit endorsement by any person or organization, the political party affiliation of a candidate, or the holding of an office by a candidate.

That's a pretty clear standard. Candidates can quibble about their nuanced views on the issues of the day, but matters of party affiliation, endorsements and the like are issues of fact. Violations would constitute a misdemeanor and subject to fines of up to $2,500 each or five years in prison.

Obviously, this is no perfect remedy. Dirty tricks will always be a part of politics. But at least in Maryland the perpetrators would know they risk being charged and possibly convicted of a criminal offense. Free speech carries some minimum responsibilities: One can't cry fire in a crowded theater. The media can't commit acts of libel. Advertisers can't make patently false claims.

And, as much as Democrats were incensed by the actions of Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Steele, this shouldn't be regarded as a partisan law. Lies are lies whether they are offered by Democrats or Republicans. That's why the measure has passed the House on a bipartisan 133-1 vote and deserves similar approval by the Senate.

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