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The Case for Outlawing Lying in Politics

California's "direct democracy" rules (which let voters bypass the legislature to pass laws, veto laws, or recall elected officials) make it...


California's "direct democracy" rules (which let voters bypass the legislature to pass laws, veto laws, or recall elected officials) make it possible for some otherwise outlandish ideas to become law. One initiative in California would basically make it illegal to lie in politics. You can download the full text of Initiative 1399 as a pdf, but here's the summary:
Amends constitution to hold candidates for public office, government officials and employees, and members of the media criminally liable for intentionally making a false statement of "material fact" about legislative acts, elections for public office, or the employment or dismissal of government employees. Imposes on violators a 2 to 10 year prison term, a $10,000 to $500,000 fine, or both, and a lifetime ban on serving as a government official or employee, or member of the media.
It's already illegal to lie to federal police and illegal to lie under oath, and we have slander and libel laws. But that leaves a lot of rooms for the media and candidates for office to make "intentional false statements" about "material facts" to advance their political agendas. This law would make public figures a lot less cavalier about lying. The penalty for it would be quite a bit stronger than the standard reprimand from Media Matters.The concern, I suppose, would be that this infringes on First Amendment rights. But I think it makes sense to enforce a certain standard of truthfulness in public debates about laws and elections. Fighting willful misinformation in politics is, I would argue, just a higher value than preserving the rights of politicians and pundits to lie (and, in fact, they still could lie all they want in private life). Furthermore, I imagine the legal standard for proving a violation of this law would be pretty high and that it would only catch the most shameless cases. Spinning, rhetorical tricks, and "unintentional" lying would still be kosher.At this point, 1399 has been "approved for circulation." That means the initiative's supporters can go out and try to collect enough signatures to get it on the state ballot. If this initiative gets 694,354 signatures by April 29, the voters can make it law.
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