Everyone Lies: How A SCOTUS Case Relates To Gubernatorial Politics In Florida

Apr 22, 2014

Someone - there’s some debate as to whether it was Will Rogers or Mark Twain - said you can tell when a politician is lying if their lips are moving.  Certainly today’s hyper-charged political campaigns are often known for their casual approach to accuracy, as well as their incredible expense.  Ryan Benk took a look at what’s happening in Florida in the ramp-up to this fall’s elections.  He begins with a conversation with one of the state’s top political journalists.

Ryan Benk: The Miami Herald’s Marc Caputo joins me now. Hey, Marc welcome to the program.

Marc Caputo: Thanks for having me.

Ryan Benk: So, we’re a little less than seven months away from the 2014 election and it looks like both campaigns, the Republican incumbent Rick Scott and presumptive Democratic nominee Charlie Crist, are revving up a little bit. But, it was the launch of some Scott campaign ads that caused a little bit of controversy last week. What was that all about?

Marc Caputo: Well, it was about running ads that say things that aren’t true and that’s Rick Scott’s problem with two of his negative ads that he’s using to attack former Governor Charlie Crist over Obamacare. The information concerning Crist isn’t so much misleading as is Governor Scott’s description of the effects Obamacare has had on the individual insurance market. Specifically, Scott’s ads say that 300,000 health plans have been canceled, past tense, as a result of Obamacare and that’s just not really true.

Florida Blue, the state’s largest health insurer, originally intended to migrate those 300,000 plans to more compliant ones after the initial implementation of the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. But, after a public backlash stemming from the president’s promise that “if you like you’re plan you can keep it,” the administration halted that part of the new law’s execution. Instead, Florida Blue says only a few hundred plans were actually dropped in favor of better coverage through the federal insurance marketplace.

Still, Scott is standing by his campaign’s new ads, even after reporters like Miami Herald’s Marc Caputo questioned the governor on the accuracy of his claims in person.

So, are there any avenues, other than media scrutiny, for campaigns and voters to hold politicians accountable for disseminating falsehoods? Florida Southern College Political Scientist Bruce Anderson in short, says not really.

“If on the other hand you have a campaign ad that lies about something, even in some cases with malice and forethought and so on and knowing it not to be true, then it often hides under a number of different rulings starting with satire and ending with public figures,” Anderson explains.

Anderson says even though there exists a strong legal framework against falsely advertising products, people are a different story. The First Amendment provides broad protections for free speech, including in satire, protests and even campaign advertisements. However, some states like Ohio, and 16 others, are trying to tamp down on campaign lying by imposing penalties for patently false advertising. But, as Anderson describes, it didn’t take long for the Buckeye State’s new law to be challenged.

“The issue in the Ohio case is one that concerns a campaign ad, a billboard I believe it was, that never actually ran. But, that was nonetheless contemplated by a campaign and developed by a campaign, which that they knew in fact was false. So, the Supreme Court has agreed to take this up under, I would imagine, under the free speech laws,” Anderson says.

The Ohio controversy began in 2010 when an anti-abortion group, Susan B. Anthony List, tried to put up a billboard ad saying former Congressman Steve Driehaus’ support of healthcare reform was tantamount to supporting taxpayer-funded abortions, a clearly false claim. Driehaus lost his reelection bid and sued the advocacy group under Ohio’s false political advertising law. The Supreme Court will now decide whether Ohio’s law is constitutional or an affront to free speech. The highest court in the land heard those arguments Tuesday.

Meanwhile in Florida, Rick Scott isn’t the only politician facing scrutiny over his campaign’s ads. His presumptive opponent in the general election, former Governor Charlie Crist is being forced to field some similar questions. Although the actual claims in official Crist campaign ads haven’t yet been questioned, the timing of some of his former employer’s advertisements has.

The Republican Party of Florida filed a complaint with elections officials claiming that some of law firm Morgan and Morgan’s billboards and TV spots featuring Crist were equivalent to “in kind” contributions and should’ve been disclosed. RPOF officials claim the ads misleadingly paint the Republican, turned Democrat as a “man of the people”. But, both the TV station, WCTV in Tallahassee, and the billboard company took responsibility, saying they had been told to take down both advertisements by the law firm and didn’t. Still, political scientist Bruce Anderson observes that in a way, all advertisements are meant to be a little misleading.

“Campaign ads and for that matter, advertising in general, is by its very nature, somewhat misleading. In the sense that you’re trying to put one product over another or you’re advertising or touting the qualities of one product, often in comparison or in competition to another,” Anderson continues. “And campaign ads are no different than ads for soap in that regard.”

In the end, Anderson says even if the country had a unified code against lying in campaign ads, that wouldn’t necessarily stop people from bending the truth. He also says that fighting campaign falsehoods, whether legally or in the form of competing commercials, only serves to distract opponents, who can still lose their campaign anyway. But Anderson cautions that, it doesn’t mean a politician’s white lie can’t backfire. Ultimately, parsing the truth from distortions is the job of the voter and Anderson says he’s confident in their ability.