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Critics: Maine Gov's Political Speech Bill Unconstitutional
03/26/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

A bill that would require the state to analyze the truthfulness of political speech ran into some significant opposition today during a public hearing before a legislative policy committee. Gov. Paul LePage is proposing that the state Ethics Commission assume the role of fact-checker in disputed political campaign claims. But several members on the panel, as well as civil libertarians, are raising concerns about the bill's constitutionality. A.J. Higgins has more.

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Critics: Maine Gov's Political Speech Bill Unconst Listen

Sen. Doug Thomas admits he had to go through an evolutionary process when he considered sponsoring the governor's political speech bill. That's because LePage is essentially proposing that a state agency serve as the final arbiter of whether a political campaign claim is true or false.

It's a prospect that Thomas, a Republican from Ripley, told the Legislature's Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee he initially found a little unnerving. "My first thought about this bill, I thought: 'What a waste of time this is going to be,'" Thomas said.

But in an era of public distrust of the media and Internet news websites, Thomas decided that voters need a reliable source to determine the truth. In this case, that source would be the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

"Every year the things we read in campaign materials and hear in radio ads or on TV become more ridiculous - and in some cases, more untrue," Thomas said. "Should there be no restraint, no limit or no consequences for lying? There should be a mechanism to at least shame those who are behind some of the more outrageous statements, and that's all that's really being asked for in this bill."

Under the governor's bill, the Ethics Commission would be required to investigate alleged false campaign claims filed by candidates for statewide office. The commission would then decide whether the allegations of erroneous campaign information were true or not.

According to Hank Fenton, the governor's deputy legal counsel, just having the law on the books would serve as a deterrent to those who would knowingly misrepresent their own positions or those of an opponent.

"The ability of the commission would serve as a small - but important - check on those who would seek to unfairly influence our political process by leading the Maine people away from the truth," Fenton said.

Democrats say it's ironic that the governor - who is currently seeking reelection - is backing a bill to inject civility into the upcoming campaign season. During the last three years, LePage has told the Maine chapter of the NAACP to kiss his butt, referred to legislators who disagreed with him as idiots and made a crude sexual reference in describing a Democratic lawmaker - a remark he later apologized for.

Assistant House Democratic Leader Jeff McCabe, of Skowhegan, says he did a double take when he found out that LD 1834 was a governor's bill.

"I was surprised to see that come forward - you know it really seems like a campaign gimmick," McCabe said. "You know I've said it before: There's reality, there's fact - and then there's the governor."

LePage's real problem with the bill may be that its intent is on a collision course with the First Amendment. Omai Amarasingham, of the Maine Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the committee that while a deliberate mischaracterization of a politician's record is unfortunate, political speech is protected by the Constitution because the framers intended for voters to draw their own conclusions.

"Responsibility for seeking out the truth belongs with the people, with journalists, with scholars and with scientists," Amarasingham said. "The Ethics Commission is plenty busy already. Do not add 'truth police' to their list of responsibilities. Because LD 1834 violates the First Amendment, we urge you to reject it."

Speaking neither for nor against the bill, Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Ethics Commission, says his small staff already has its hands full dealing with campaign finance reports and related investigations.

"Being realistic, what I would say is these investigations probably would result in some reduction in our time to perform our current responsibilities," Wayne said.

Members of the committee say they may seek a formal opinion from the state attorney general on the constitutionality of the governor's bill.


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