The state Senate race between incumbent Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, and Green Party challenger Marilou Rickert of Shelton, was settled by the voters in 2002.
Sheldon won with more than 78 percent of the vote.
But the repercussions from that political contest have reverberated through the courts and the halls of the state Legislature for seven years.
State lawmakers may have finally righted a wrong with their passage of Substitute House Bill 1286 which set limits on what candidates can say about their opponents.
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Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the bill into law on April 25.
The measure, which passed the House 92-2 and the Senate 44-1, prohibits false statements that are libelous or defamatory, and are committed with actual malice. The new law prohibits political advertising or electioneering communications that make a statement constituting libel or defamation when the statement is made with the intent of doing harm.
The law defines libel or defamation as statements that tend to expose a person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, to deprive the candidate of public confidence or social interaction or statements that injure the candidate in his or her business or occupation.
A candidate also is prohibited from submitting a defamatory or libelous statement to the secretary of state for inclusion in the voters’ pamphlet about his or her opponent.
Lawmakers successfully walked a delicate line between free speech rights of candidates and the public’s right to expect truth from their political candidates.
The Sheldon/Rickert race was not particularly nasty. But a Rickert campaign brochure included the statement that Sheldon had voted in the state Legislature to close down the Mission Creek Youth Camp in Belfair.
Sheldon denied the charge and the state Public Disclosure Commission ruled in his favor. The commissioners used the state law to fine Rickert $1,000 for a campaign violation.
Rickert appealed the PDC ruling and lost in Superior Court. She prevailed, however, in the court of appeals and again in the state Supreme Court which rendered a 5-4 verdict in October 2007.
The majority said that Rickert had a free speech right, which some interpreted as a license to lie during political campaigns.
Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Jim Johnson said, “The notion that the government, rather than the people, may be the final arbiter of truth in political debate is fundamentally at odds with the First Amendment.”
On the losing end, Justice Barbara Madsen and three of her colleagues said falsehoods are not afforded constitutional protection and the state law didn’t infringe upon anybody’s First Amendment rights.
But the majority tossed out the law.
Entering the 2009 session, Rep. Mark Miloscia, D-Federal Way, tackled the issue head on in Substitute House Bill 1286. “This bill simply establishes some overdue minimum standards of honesty and decency in political campaigning,” Miloscia said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, through Shankar Narayan, testified against Miloscia’s bill, saying the government should not be the judge of politicians and political debate.
But Miloscia won the battle with all but a handful of lawmakers voting in support of SHB 1286.
The Legislature is right to set a high standard for candidates tempted to spread falsehoods about their opponents.
The new law acknowledges that incumbents, challengers, voters, and the political process itself will benefit from vigorous political debate. But when that debate sinks to malice and defamation the electoral process is distorted.
Lawmakers rightfully concluded that, “Democracy is premised on an informed electorate. To the extent such defamatory statements misinform the voters, they interfere with the process upon which democracy is based.”
With their actions, lawmakers and Gov. Gregoire have drawn a clear line between legitimate, vigorous, political debate, and illegal defamation and malice.
It’s the right line.