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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

A Tough Penalty for False Political Claims

This Associated Press item caught our interest, describing a tough penalty meted out to a British politician for false campaign advertising:

LONDON – A British court on Friday threw out the results of a parliamentary election after deciding that the victor had gone too far in distorting his opponent’s positions.

The judges voided the May 6 re-election of Labour Party incumbent Phil Woolas, who had accused his opponent of getting support from Muslim militants favoring violence. The court said that violated British election law. Woolas won by 103 votes, but the British court on Nov. 5 ordered that he be removed from office and prohibited from serving in parliament for three years.

That’s pretty strong medicine, even for Britain, where the AP said nothing like it had happened since the 19th century. Woolas says he’ll appeal, and one professor was quoted as saying the decision is a restriction of free speech. But it’s not likely to happen in the U.S.

We’re often asked why U.S. politicians can make false or misleading claims without paying any penalty, even a fine. The short answer is that we have a First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech, while Britain does not. We wrote about this in a 2004 article — False Ads: There Oughta Be A Law! – Or Maybe Not.  What we said then remains true today: In the United States, "Candidates have a legal right to lie to voters just about as much as they want." Federal truth-in-advertising laws apply to ads for products, not political candidates. A few states have such laws, but they are generally ineffective.

We certainly don’t approve of false or misleading political claims, by any candidate or party. But the founders of our democracy left it to the voters, not the courts, to sort fact from fiction.