Woe unto the liar in a Provo municipal election for he or she could be thrust into jail.
The City Council is considering an ordinance that makes it a crime to circulate a false statement about a candidate or issue. The law attempts to forbid falsehoods broadcast on television and radio, uttered by paid telephonists and printed in newspapers, leaflets and bumper stickers.A person who makes untrue comments could be guilty of a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.
A local free speech attorney and a Brigham Young University law professor say the proposed measure makes no sense and stands little chance of passing constitutional muster.
"You can't lie about your opponent?" Orem attorney Andrew W. McCullough asks in mock horror. "They are kidding."
The provision is part of a larger amendment to the city's campaign finance disclosure law.
Council members want political action committees to play by the same rules as candidates. The ordinance calls for PACs to file disclosure statements listing contributors' names with the city recorder. It also would require PACs that publish or broadcast advertisements to include the names of those who paid for them.
The ordinance defines a PAC as two or more people who cooperate to promote or defeat a candidate or issue.
The demand for a new law came in the wake of several anonymous newspaper ads that attacked Mayor Lewis Billings and Councilman Greg Hudnall before last November's election. A group calling itself Ethics 4 Provo paid for the ads, but its members names weren't made public.
The council has reviewed several draft ordinances the past few months. The latest one attempts to criminalize false statements made be individuals, PACs and campaign committees. The council will consider the ordinance at its March 3 meeting.
Although initially gung-ho about making a law, Hudnall doesn't like the current version. "I hate ordinances that try to set a standard for people when they're not being honest," he said.
BYU law professor Frederick M. Gedicks said the measure probably wouldn't hold up in court.
"It seems to me that the misdemeanor provision goes way beyond what is necessary, and that's likely to make the law unconstitutional," he said.
"The conceptual problem is how do you know when a statement is false. On whom does the ambiguity fall?" Gedicks said.
Provo's proposed law isn't without precedent. According to the state election code, it's a class B misdemeanor to "knowingly" make or publish false statements about candidates or issues. Some states have similar laws.
Rumors and innuendo fly during an a political campaign like autumn leaves on a windy day. Some of the rhetoric blows into the papers and across the airwaves, especially when the race gets tight. Questionable claims routinely appear on 11th-hour fliers and mailers.
"How do you prove or disprove?" said McCullough, a former Libertarian Party candidate for attorney general. "It's just preposterous to suggest it could even be enforced."
Lying has been part of American politics for 200 years, Gedicks said. Even the nation's founders turned on each other. "You really don't want government fooling around too much with the democratic process," he said.
Added McCullough, "I guess you could say (the proposed law) tries to eliminate mom and apple pie."