There is an Ohio law on the books that prohibits politicians from making false claims against an opponent in election campaign ads. Recently, however, the United States Supreme Court took up the question as to whether the legislation infringes on free speech.
Although a dozen other states have similar laws in place, Ohio’s version has come under fire by a conservative group, called the Susan B. Anthony List, who claimed discouraged them from running advertisements against a pro-choice Democratic congressman. It’s likely the case will be kicked back to a lower court, but the implication of the argument leaves room for the exploitation of loopholes, like rhetorical hyperbole.
In general, the law makes it illegal to lie about a political candidate or ballot initiative. What’s left somewhat to interpretation is whether rhetorical hyperbole is permitted. That is, can statements be exaggerated to the edge of falsehood without actually crossing the line? Hyperbole would still stretch the truth, making hours seem like days.
For those who slept through sixth grade English, like me (I know, ironic, huh?), an hyperbole is an exaggerated statement or claim not meant to be taken literally. It comes from a Greek work meaning, “over-casting.” For example, you’re standing in line at the bureau of motor vehicles and you say, “This is taking forever!” Your ordeal in line is not literally going to be indefinite, but you express your irritation and impatience in hyperbole to punctuate your displeasure.
Politicians (and most other advertisers) use hyperbole in many ways. In an extreme example, imagine seeing a political ad where a pro-choice candidate is being attacked by a conservative group. The ad might say, “Congressman Bob hates babies.” Bob may be pro-choice, but no evidence is offered in the ad that he actually hates babies.
What about a conservative senatorial candidate painted as if she is, “going to overturn years of gun control” because she was photographed at a shooting range for a stump speech? In both cases, there’s no evidence given to support the claims but it could be argued that these statements are simple hyperbole and cleverly dodge the “no lying” clause of the Ohio law.
Until this kind of legislation was enacted, only commercial advertisers had to follow rules guarding the consumer against false advertising. Advertising agencies and marketing representatives sometimes find loopholes in the law, but generally color within the lines or risk paying severe (even criminal) penalties to the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission.
So why shouldn’t politicians have to follow the same rules as any other advertiser? Really, they should. A politician has no more right to lie, or even grossly exaggerate, to the consumer than a toothpaste or fast food company. If anything, they should be held to an even tougher standard than someone selling milkshakes – but that’s not likely to happen.
Is it a violation of free speech for a fast food chain to be restricted from promoting their food as “healthy” because a burger contains less special sauce than the competition? No, it’s not; plain and simple. If legislation can be enforced to protect the public from losing $3 to a misrepresented health claim for a hamburger, why shouldn’t the law prevent the potential loss of millions of taxpayer dollars to a dishonest politician?
Then again, most people, if asked off the record, tend to believe all politicians are dishonest. But, dishonest or not, misleading the public in an advertisement is fraud and probably should be criminalized.
The idea of rhetorical hyperbole being some kind of back door to the law should also be addressed. Exaggeration is still misrepresentation because more often than not, the jelly-brained voter out there tends to take things more literally than they probably should.
Regardless of advertising content, the final decision about the truthful nature of our politics is made at the polls. Voters must be proactive and learn as much as possible about the candidates and issues before dropping their choice into the ballot box. In a democracy, you have the power, use it wisely.
Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and business writer based in Jamestown. More at www.deerinheadlines.com.