What if we could rid politics of all lies? What if candidates could be forced to admit their fabrications? What if campaigns were transformed into beacons of truth?
Well, for one thing, those campaigns would be duller than a Maine PBS panel discussion. And, for another, this column would be out of business.
Fortunately for my prospects for continued employment and Governor John Baldacci’s chances of re-election, the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech allows candidates to say just about anything short of yelling, “Adam Sandler is a great actor” in a crowded theater.
They can tell outrageous falsehoods. They can tell subtle falsehoods. They can tell falsehoods whose veracity can only be determined through urine analysis. It’s their constitutional right.
Or maybe not.
In spite of numerous court decisions giving the highest grade of legal protection to political speech, Maine’s Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices (which, for some reason, is never referred to as COGEEP) has decided it has the power to decide what’s true and to ban anything that doesn’t meet its exacting standards. As a result, the commission (you know, COGEEP), which is composed primarily of political has-beens, has not only usurped the power of columnists such as myself, but also the authority normally reserved for voters.
Consider the case of Michael Mowles of Cape Elizabeth. In the June primary, Mowles, a town councilor, was seeking the Republican nomination for the state House of Representatives, a seat he had sought unsuccessfully two years before. This time around he was opposed in the primary by Jennifer Duddy, who was making her first bid for elective office.
Mowles distributed a brochure containing complimentary quotations from several people, including the state’s US senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. Most of the quotes were recent, but the Snowe and Collins endorsements were left over from Mowles’s previous campaign. He noted that fact by including the 2004 date in small type after their statements.
Duddy complained to the ethics commission (which I’m going out of my way not to call COGEEP). She claimed using the old quotes was a violation of state law, because they might deceive the public into believing the senators had taken sides in this year’s primary. On June 12, one day before the election, the commission ruled that Mowles’s brochure was misleading. “It just seemed to us it was completely inappropriate to distribute that information,” commissioner Jean Ginn Marvin told the Portland Press Herald.
A triumph for truth and justice.
Or it would have been if there was anything in state law that a) makes it illegal for politicians to make “completely inappropriate” statements or b) allows COGEEP (oops, sorry) to decide what constitutes misleading. Unfortunately for the ethics overseers, there isn’t.
“The statute doesn’t discuss misleading,” said David Lourie, a lawyer who represents Mowles. “They made that up out of whole cloth.”
Maine law does ban the use of endorsements without the permission of the endorsers. But Snowe and Collins gave such permission, and neither they nor the law bothered to set an expiration date on their approval. And even if they had, the First Amendment permits the quoting of public statements by public figures regardless of whether they gave permission. I do that sort of thing all the time, and, so far, the ethics cops haven’t busted down my door.