WASHINGTON — AS the presidential primaries draw near, the airwaves are being saturated with political ads. Some are less-than genteel. Others may only manage to present "half-truths" in a 30-second television window.
But this year as the mudslinging begins in earnest, party officials are uncomfortably eyeing a case in Minnesota that threatens to put a politician in jail for allegedly false TV ads and a move by Florida lawmakers to also make political fibs illegal.
At issue is whether the constitutional right of free speech protects politicians if they knowingly lie to voters. At a time when character is considered vital to choosing a leader, some argue that the Constitution shouldn't shield prevaricators. Others see laws against political deceit as unenforceable and having a chilling effect on the democratic process.
The Minnesota law is "a joke," says Bill Winkler, a Pennsylvania-based researcher, who was recently indicted along with another campaign worker and Tad Jude, a Republican who ran for Congress in 1994. The three are scheduled to appear at a pretrial hearing on Feb. 1. They have been charged with violating a state law that makes it a "gross misdemeanor" to spread false or misleading campaign information.
"Minnesotans have this law for one reason - they want clean campaigns," says Minnesota Rep. Bill Luther (D). "This law is there to keep candidates on notice that dirty tactics won't be tolerated."
Mr. Jude, with support from the ACLU, intends to file a federal civil rights suit against prosecutors, accusing them of violating his constitutional right to free speech.
A grand jury charged that Jude knowingly ran a false television ad against his opponent. The ad ran in the final days of Jude's hard-fought open-seat battle with Mr. Luther. It charged that Luther, then a state senator, bore responsibility for the furlough of a convicted sex offender who committed additional crimes after his release. Luther won the election by 588 votes.
Jude maintains that the ad "was fundamentally true." But, he adds, "I regret the tenor of the ad - we could have used a better example." The 25-year-old statute under which Jude and two campaign staffers were indicted carries penalties of up to a year in jail and a fine of $3,000.
Florida lawmakers are also putting together legislation that would have similar penalties for disseminating false campaign material. Although a bipartisan effort now, Republicans led the way initially following the tactics employed by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles's reelection campaign in the 1994 race against Republican challenger Jeb Bush.
In the final week of the election, approximately 70,000 phone calls were placed by the campaign to senior citizens and moderate Republicans. The callers identified themselves falsely as with a senior-citizen advocacy group, alleged that Jeb Bush planned to abolish Social Security, and falsely claimed that he failed to pay his taxes. Exit polling indicated that the phone calls did have some effect among the intended demographic groups, and Bush lost the race by 58,000 votes.
"There was and continues to be a lot of clamor for campaign election reform following the Bush-Chiles race," says Randy Enright, executive director of the Florida GOP. "The attitude right now is 'It's better to cheat and win and then get slapped on the wrist, than to lose and be ethical.' That's got to change."
Surprisingly, most campaign professionals in Washington are unaware of the Minnesota law. Joanne Barnhart, the political director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, was "shocked that such a law was out there." A senior Democratic Party official, when told about the law, said "that will certainly change the way we run things this year in Minnesota."
Some question whether such laws are good for the political process. "It's pretty scary stuff," says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Campaigns have a lot to do with ambiguity. Who is to say what's false or misleading? These things are superficially attractive until they reach judicial decisions."