Lying in a Political Campaign, Free Speech or Crime?

A 1946 Massachusetts law made lying in a political campaign a crime. Specifically, the law provides:

No person shall make or publish, or cause to be made or published, any false statement in relation to any candidate for nomination or election to public office, which is designed or tends to aid or to injure or defeat such candidate.

The range of punishment for violations of the law is imprisonment for up to six months and a fine of up to $1,000.00.

According to a Boston Globe report, the law is often cited but seldom prosecuted. Until now. Representative Brian Mannal (D), a criminal defense attorney, sought criminal charges against Melissa Lucas, treasurer of the Jobs First Political Action Committee (PAC), the organization Mannal maintains "criminally wronged" him in his recent reelection bid.

Representative Mannal sponsored a bill that would have required notifying indigent sex offenders of their right to a public defender before the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board. In a mailer, Jobs First wrote, "Lawyer Brian Mannal has earned nearly $140,000 of our tax dollars to represent criminals. Now he wants to use our tax dollars to pay defense lawyers like himself to help convicted sex offenders." The mailer also stated, "Pol Aiding Sex Cons Gets Defense Cash."

Mannal's beef: he had never represented sex offenders before the board and was not certified to do so. The charges were accepted and misdemeanor charges were filed against Lucas.

Jobs First and Lucas filed suit (read Complaint) in the United States District Court District of Massachusetts seeking a declaratory judgment that the law is unconstitutional and an injunction preventing the prosecution of Lucas.

The U.S. District Court denied the request for an injunction and Mannal's motion to dismiss, so it appears both cases will proceed through the various court systems. The general consensus seems to be that the statements are protected under the First Amendment, and the law prohibiting false statements will not survive the Constitutional challenge.

Given the holding in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010), the general consensus is probably right.