Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Should there be a federal political defamation law?

Almost everybody – on the right, on the left, in the center – will probably tell you no. They'll say we shouldn't have libel laws that cover political speech. 

Public figures, you’re likely to hear, are different from you and me. The press has to feel free to cover them without fear of making an unintentional slip. “Vigorous political debate" is the fertile womb from which Democracy springs forth, and all that metaphorical crap.

I used to go along with this, but election season media noise is getting so loud, it’s deafening. You have to wade through a hailstorm of lies if you hope to get past Election Day.

I’m not just talking about mistaken overestimates of the price of preventing the poor from starving to death, or deliberately hyped declarations relating to taxes, or the national deficit, or the national debt, or whether the one percent is really the two-percent, or that the super rich somehow magically create jobs by stashing their cash in the Caymans.

I’m taking about vicious personal attacks, clearly false to anyone who carefully scrutinizes them, clearly deliberate, and clearly orchestrated not only to defame a candidate, but also to mislead you and me and have an unjustified influence on voter behavior.

President Obama has been under such an attack recently. Or rather, under a barrage of these attacks.  They question and falsify his paternity, smear his mother’s morality, falsify the circumstances of his upbringing, attribute non-existant rage to him, and more. You can read about some of it here

The claims, ranging from one that his mother was an overweight slut to one that his father-in-law wasn't a Kenyan or a Muslim after all, but an American rabblerousers, have been put together in a so-called “documentary” video disk and is being mass mailed by far right groups in swing states.

There are drawbacks to a political libel law. One of them is the risk of frivolous lawsuits and counter lawsuits, as one side or another tries to bend the law to its own purposes. But a clause in the law could discourage this by guaranteeing triple legal fees to victims of legal frivolity.

I guess you can tell what chance we stand of ever having such a law in our lifetimes.

Yeah. Exactly.

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