State Supreme Court strikes down law barring false campaign statements

Attorney general office argued law helped safeguard elections from fraud

By Bob Salsberg
Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) - A Massachusetts law that makes it a crime to publish false statements about political candidates is unconstitutional, the state's highest court ruled Thursday.

The Supreme Judicial Court's ruling came in a case involving a state lawmaker from Cape Cod who last year sought a criminal complaint against the treasurer of a political action committee. At issue were fliers that Democratic Rep. Brian Mannal said accused him of putting the interests of sex offenders ahead of families.

The justices, in a unanimous 31-page decision, said the 1946 law was "inconsistent with the fundamental right of free speech."

The law said no person should publish, or cause to be published, a false statement about a political candidate that is designed to affect the outcome of an election, to harm a political candidate or influence the outcome of a ballot question.

In striking down the law, the court also dismissed a criminal complaint that was filed against Melissa Lucas, the treasurer of the Jobs First PAC.

The PAC had created fliers that pointed to a bill sponsored by Mannal, a Barnstable defense attorney, which would have notified indigent sex offenders of their right to a public defender.

The flier read in part: "Brian Mannal chose convicted felons over the safety of our families. Is this the kind of person we want representing us?"

Mannal went on to defeat Republican Adam Chaprales in the November election by 205 votes. The PAC was operating independently from Chaprales, who was not named in the complaint.

Mannal said the decision gives a green light to anyone who wants to lie to win an election.

"It doesn't change the fact that in this case false statements were knowingly made to mislead voters," Mannal told the Associated Press. "What we have here on several levels is a collision course with fairness in our electoral process."

In court papers, Lucas' attorney, Peter Charles Horstmann, said his client had no role in writing or distributing the brochures and also argued the law violated First Amendment protections of free speech.

Horstmann told the AP that the ruling was a great relief for Lucas. He also said voters are capable today of doing "unlimited fact-checking" to decide how much weight to give a political ad or flier.

"I think it's a little naive in 2015 to think that an election is going to be subverted by allegedly false statements," he said.

The state attorney general's office, while agreeing that the charges against Lucas should be dismissed, defended the law itself, arguing it helps the state safeguard elections from deliberately fraudulent statements meant to skew the outcome.

The high court disagreed, saying "any legitimate interest in preventing electoral fraud must be done by narrowly drawn laws designed to serve those interests without unnecessarily interfering with First Amendment freedoms."

The justices further warned that the threat of a criminal investigation under the law could have a chilling effect on the political process. And they said the American election system already has a built-in remedy for false statements.

"That solution is counterspeech," Justice Robert Cordy wrote.

Several groups, including the libertarian Cato Institute, the American Civil Liberties Union and local newspaper publishers, filed briefs with the court asking that the law be ruled unconstitutional.

Published: Mon, Aug 10, 2015