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January 11, 2014 11:48 AM The Truthification of Political Discourse

By Martin Longman

In recent years, we’ve seen the emergence of journalistic outlets that try to arbitrate the truthfulness of political statements. Perhaps the best established is the Tampa Bay Times’ Politifact. They do a tolerable job most of the time, but they still have come under attack from partisans on both the right and the left. This proves that there are some political statements that are hard to pin down as “true” or “mostly true” or “false” or “mostly false.” A lot of the time, we are forced to deal with what Stephen Colbert coined as “truthiness.”


This makes it difficult to precisely define when someone is telling a political lie. It’s like that old saying, “There are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics.” So, we wind up with judgments that something is kinda sorta true if you squint real hard and bend the evidence with all your might and basically drop normal standards for logical proof.

For some reason, in writing about this, I remember when Rush Limbaugh said that Sandra Fluke was having so much sex that she couldn’t afford contraception. How do you define that kind of accusation? On the logical level, it is a non sequitur because female contraception generally costs the same amount regardless of how much sex you have. It’s similar to pointing to the ice on your window and declaring that global warming is not occurring. It makes no sense.

But it’s different from arguing that a vote for the Affordable Care Act is a vote for taxpayer-funded abortion. We should be able to declare a statement like that to be true of false. And that is what then-Rep. Steven Driehaus of Cincinnati asked the state of Ohio to do when the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List ran ads against him in 2010 accusing him of supporting taxpayer-funded abortion.

As it turned out, Driehaus lost his reelection bid and dropped his complaint (although, he did later file a defamation suit), but the Susan B. Anthony List decided to defend themselves by arguing in court that an Ohio law banning lying in political advertising is unconstitutional.

…the Ohio False Statement Law that makes it illegal to “post, publish, circulate, distribute, or otherwise disseminate a false statement concerning a candidate, either knowing the same to be false or with reckless disregard for whether it was false or not, if the statement is designed to promote the election, nomination, or defeat of the candidate.”

The case is now going to the Supreme Court. The issue isn’t so much whether the Susan B. Anthony List lied but whether they have the constitutional right to lie. Except, they insist that they weren’t lying:

Susan B. Anthony List denies that the ads were false — but is challenging the overall constitutionality of the restrictions on false political speech. The group also successfully beat back defamation lawsuit filed by Driehaus in 2013.
“This lawsuit originated with the now ongoing problem of taxpayer funding of abortion in Obamacare. Driehaus was originally opposed to the Affordable Care Act because it did not contain specific language preventing the funding of abortion,” said SBA president Marjorie Dannenfelser in a Friday statement.
“That never changed and to this very day, Americans are still fighting the expansion of taxpayer funding of abortion brought about by the overhaul. After Driehaus and other naive Democrats caved, SBA List sought to inform constituents of their votes for taxpayer funding of abortion,” said Dannenfelser.

This is definitely “truthiness” at its worst. It’s just not true that the Affordable Care Act appropriates any money for abortion. To argue that it does requires a level of mental gymnastics that could win you an Olympic medal.

If we accept that the Affordable Care Act funds abortion, then we would also have to accept that it funds a manned Martian expedition, or any other false statement.

So, can Ohio ban lies in political advertising?

What’s a lie these days?

Nobody seems to know anymore.

Martin Longman is the Web Editor for the Washington Monthly and main blogger at Booman Tribune. He has worked as community organizer for ACORN/Project Vote and as a political consultant for Democracy for America.

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