Bloomberg View’s Stephen Carter criticizes Minnesota courts for upholding a law prohibiting false claims about political endorsements (“Lies? They’re still free speech,” Feb. 28). Administrative law judges fined a Republican activist $600 for falsely implying that judicial candidates had party endorsement. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case.
“Once the state is allowed to regulate speech that misleads the public during an election campaign, there’s no reason to stop at endorsements,” warns Carter, a self-styled “free speech near-absolutist.”
Actually, Minnesota laws don’t stop at endorsements.
The law also makes it illegal to intentionally prepare or disseminate campaign material or letters to the editor about “the personal or political character or acts of a candidate” to promote, defeat or injure a candidate or about a ballot question, knowing that the information is false or with reckless disregard for the truth.
The three administrative law judges found that’s what the Republican activist, Bonn Clayton, also had done and fined him another $600. But the state Court of Appeals reversed the judges, saying Clayton erred but didn’t recklessly disregard the truth and just didn’t investigate enough.
Another Minnesota law makes it illegal to knowingly provide false and defamatory statements to news media with the aim of getting them published.
Then there’s Minnesota’s criminal defamation law, which makes it a crime in certain circumstances to communicate “anything [false] which exposes a person or a group, class or association to hatred, contempt, ridicule, degradation or disgrace in society, or injury to business or occupation.” There’s an exception for “fair comment made in good faith” about matters “of public concern.”
The law apparently hadn’t been used in 60-some years when a Worthington man falsely complained to a state licensing board in 1998 that his neighbor, a dentist, had been practicing while drunk. Defamation cases commonly are brought by the injured person (and the dentist did get an out-of-court settlement). But in this case, a county attorney brought a criminal defamation charge against the complainant.
He was convicted and fined $1,530, but a judge overturned that result, saying the possibility of reprisal would have a “chilling effect” on complaints that should be investigated by quasi-judicial agencies.
The law remains on the books.
Criminal defamation has a quirky history, including political cases. In Illinois, charges were brought over a racist publication. A Washington state case involved a newspaper that vilified George Washington 117 years after he died. Some defendants were prosecuted for statements that were true.
In upholding the Clayton case on endorsements, the Minnesota Court of Appeals wrote that “false political speech can be electorally toxic” and the state has a compelling interest in “preventing electorate confusion.”
But toxic speech, hate speech and lies are prices we pay for free speech. Otherwise, it’s not hard to imagine the possibilities nationally if fines were levied every time untruths were put out by a candidate, political operative, talk-show host, reporter’s source or Internet jockey. The level of civic discourse might be raised. Courts likely would be clogged forever. Or just maybe fines would raise enough money for every state to repair all of its roads and bridges, cut taxes and educate all of its college students.
Robert Franklin, a retired Star Tribune reporter and editor, is a former Freedom of Information chairman and former president of the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.