The 2014 political campaign season is under way, and some negative campaign ads are already appearing on radio and TV. But this week the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether political mudslinging during an election should be treated as a crime.
The case before the justices is based on a challenge to an Ohio law that prohibits false statements about political candidates. Fifteen other states have similar laws.
Marietta College junior Kelly Cecora, from Ravenna, said it could be difficult to know who said what about a political candidate, given today's technology.
"People share everything about candidates on social media," she said. "And I see some of the most outrageous comments. Things you know could not be true."
Cecora said voters have a responsibility to do their own research and not rely on TV and radio ads about a candidate.
"It's my job as a voter to learn the facts about a candidate," she said.
Ohio law makes it illegal to knowingly or recklessly make false statements about a candidate during an election.
Fifteen other states have similar laws in effect.
This week the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether false accusations and mudslinging during and election can be a punishable crime.
Source: The Associated Press
Her father, Kimble Cecora, agreed and said the Supreme Court case is proof that people don't learn enough about their candidates.
"Unfortunately this case is a knee-jerk reaction to our low-information voting public," he said. "It's scary."
Greg Frye of Marietta said politicians during an election campaign should be treated the same as anyone else who falsifies information about another person.
"It shouldn't be any different for politicians than it is for regular citizens," he said. "And these television ads make me not want to vote for anybody. It seems like they're all talking a lot of crap. If you're going to vote it's better to find out about the candidate yourself."
Charlie Daniels, Democratic candidate to represent Ohio's 95th District in the state House of Representatives, said he understands the need for a law governing campaign rhetoric.
"When I ran in 2012, we ran a positive campaign," he said. "And I'm tired of the negative campaigning. I think people just want the actual facts about a candidate, but you can be outspent by special interest groups who have much more money and their message can have a negative impact."
Daniels said he would favor a law making false statements about a candidate a punishable crime, but suggested taking it a bit further by also eliminating the ability to issue half-truths about candidates.
"Some special interest groups are very clever about that," he said. "I'm 100 percent for free speech, but people need to stick to the facts."
Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, said the issue should be approached with some caution.
"I would be very reluctant to criminalize this. It's still free speech," he said. "If some falsely accuses a candidate of a crime, that's more serious. That's slander. But we have to be very careful about limiting free speech during an election."
Thompson said such laws should be left up to individual states, not the U.S. Supreme Court.
Democrat Greg Howard is seeking election to Ohio's 6th U.S. Congressional District this year.
"If elections were based solely on the issues, we wouldn't have this problem," he said. "I believe slander should always be treated as a criminal offense, and there should be a punishment for issuing false information about a candidate. But we shouldn't have to pass a new law to do that."
Howard said negative campaigning doesn't always work, and when a group or individual tries to sway his vote in that way, they usually end up losing his vote instead.
"And I believe the electorate is not as dumbed-down as many of these groups would like to think," he said.
According to the Associated Press, the case before the Supreme Court began in 2010 when the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion organization, planned to launch a billboard campaign against then-Democratic Rep. Steven Driehaus, accusing him of supporting taxpayer-funded abortion because he supported President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
Driehaus asked the Ohio Elections Commission to block the ads because the proposed billboard was false under Ohio law. Concerned about potential legal action, the billboard owner did not run the ad.
Later, after losing his bid for re-election, Driehaus withdrew his complaint, but the Susan B. Anthony List challenged the state law as unconstitutional. A federal judge ruled against the group, saying no harm had been done and there was no standing for a suit.
But the Susan B. Anthony List says the Ohio law curbs free speech by placing a chilling effect on a group's right to challenge the law without waiting for an elections commission decision.
The U.S. Supreme Court will focus on whether the law can be challenged before it is actually enforced.
Ohio 6th Congressional District Democratic candidate and former Ohio Rep. Jennifer Garrison said Driehaus did not deserve to be demonized for his support of the President's health care bill, and the incident is an example of how independent third-party groups can impact an election.
"It would be refreshing if campaigns could not use negatives against their opponents," Garrison said. "And there are so many of these third-parties who are not held accountable for what they say about a candidate. I think the whole electoral process has gotten out of hand with so many independent groups making accusations against candidates, and I would welcome a ruling that would require the truth from campaigns."
This year the Susan B. Anthony List plans to run billboard ads in three states that have laws similar to Ohio's, but they will not place billboard ads in the Buckeye State until the Supreme Court case is resolved.
"The risks quite frankly are too high," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group's president.