It is now a tradition that during an America presidential election year, commentators shall declare the campaigns to be the ‘nastiest’ and ‘dirtiest’ ever. It is difficult to know whether such a claim is true of the 2012 election, as tough campaigning has a long history in the USA (as a recent NY Times article explains).

There is, however, no doubt that candidates at all levels of the American system have engaged in and been subject to some fierce attack messages (a recent Campaigns and Elections article provides some notable examples). Yet negative messages do not breach campaign ethics. Strong criticism of parties and candidates is part of the cut and thrust of elections. The real problem arises when electoral messages turn out to be false – and a quick viewing of websites such as show the doubts about the truth of some campaign messages in the current American election.

Given the seemingly free exchange of robust (and sometimes brutal) campaign communications, it may surprise some readers that several US states have laws that prohibit certain false statements about candidates during an election campaign. These are the American equivalents of British law that led to Phil Woolas being forced out of his seat following the 2010 general election (s.106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983). For example, the key state of Ohio has laws prohibiting knowingly or recklessly false statements being published about a candidate. It employs a combination of administrative remedies (through an Election Commission finding or a fine) and criminal penalties (as a last resort). Despite the presence of such a law, a recent article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer casts doubt on the effectiveness of these measures.  Much the same can be said about its British counterpart.

A bigger constitutional question is whether such laws are consistent with the right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment. This is something I considered briefly in an article for OJLS published over the summer. On my reading, the US case law was ambiguous. The US Supreme Court has not addressed the issue directly. Previous statements from the Supreme Court point in different directions, with some emphasizing the importance of political expression and others stressing that knowingly false statements have no value. Since my article was finalized, the Supreme Court’s decision in June in US v Alvarez sheds more light on this issue and drops some hints as to how the Court might approach false campaign statement laws.

Alvarez did not concern campaign communications, but a statute called the Stolen Valor Act, which made it a criminal offence to falsely claim to have been awarded ‘any decoration or medal authorized by Congress for the Armed Forces of the United States’. The issue for the Court was whether the First Amendment protected false statements. A majority of the court decided that while lies can be prohibited in some circumstances, falsity alone does not preclude First Amendment protection. In his plurality opinion, Justice Kennedy thought the system of free speech is self-correcting and that the normal ‘remedy for speech that is false is speech that is true.’ Applying strict scrutiny, he found the Stolen Valor Act to be unconstitutional. In a concurring opinion, Justice Breyer reached the same conclusion, but applied a less intense standard of intermediate scrutiny.

The government relied on a number of cases, including New York Times v Sullivan (1964) to support the Stolen Valor Act. The ruling in Sullivan famously protects those making statements about public figures from defamation actions. However, the Sullivan ruling still allows defamation actions to be brought when malicious (ie knowingly or recklessly false) defamatory statements are made about public figures. One reading of Sullivan is therefore that knowingly or recklessly false statements can be restricted – even on political matters – without raising First Amendment concerns. The argument is of interest as many of the American campaign speech laws have been drafted to conform to this reading of Sullivan, prohibiting only those false statements about candidates that are made with ‘actual malice’.

The Supreme Court in Alvarez, however, rejected this reading. The basic thrust of Justice Kennedy’s reasoning is that defamatory statements normally fall outside the First Amendment. The public figure defence in Sullivan is a way of softening that exclusion to give breathing space for political speech. On this view, Sullivan merely deprives the malicious speaker of the public figure defence and in such cases restores the normal position that defamatory statements fall outside the First Amendment. While I am still thinking through the implications of this reasoning, it means that the Supreme Court now treats the Sullivan rule on malicious statements as specific to defamation and does not deal with false statements more generally.

Alvarez also provides some indication of how campaign speech laws might be treated. In a recent analysis of the decision, Prof Rick Hasen, a leading US election lawyer, notes that there is ‘unanimous skepticism of laws targeting false speech about issues of public concern.’ For example, Justice Breyer, in a concurring opinion, said that controls on ‘false statements about philosophy, religion, history, the social sciences, the arts, and the like’ would risk suppressing true as well as false statements, and that such controls could call for strict scrutiny. He went on to say:

‘In the political arena a false statement is more likely to make a behavioral difference (say, by leading the listeners to vote for the speaker) but at the same time criminal prosecution is particularly dangerous (say, by radically changing a potential election result) and consequently can more easily result in censorship of speakers and their ideas.’

Breyer’s remarks suggest that it would be difficult to tailor a control on false campaign speech in a way that would not chill some true expression and that such controls could also be open to abuse by prosecutors and adjudicators.

Justice Alito offered a dissenting opinion, stating ‘false statements of fact merit no First Amendment protection in their own right’. While he thought the Stolen Valor Act should be upheld, he too hinted that laws prohibiting false campaign speech might fall foul of the First Amendment. Even though false statements have no intrinsic value, Alito reasoned that this should not be the end of the question. Restrictions on false statements of fact can still have a chilling effect. For this reason, restrictions on certain types of false speech may still be afforded some ‘instrumental constitutional protection’. Like Breyer, Alito thought that in relation to ‘philosophy, religion, history, the social sciences, the arts, and other matters of public concern’ it would be ‘perilous to permit the state to be the arbiter of truth.’ The dissenters also argued that such a power ‘opens the door for the state to use its power for political ends’.

These statements are only indications of where the Court might go and do not address the campaign speech issue directly. These initial sentiments of the US Supreme Court stand in contrast to the position of the British courts following Woolas, which concerned the British law on false electoral statements. In that case, Thomas LJ stated that Article 10 of the European Convention ‘does not extend to a right to be dishonest and tell lies’ and that this is applies to lies about the ‘political position of a candidate’ as well as those about a candidate’s ‘personal character’. Thomas LJ argued that dishonest statements in an election campaign ‘are aimed at the destruction of the rights of the public to free elections’ and thereby relied on Article 17 to exclude any protection under the European Convention. The British approach appears to give the government a free hand in restricting dishonest campaign messages.

Ultimately, the issue is a difficult one and the British and the emerging American approaches show two different paths. My feelings on this are mixed, as I think the campaign lies do pose a substantial harm to the electoral process and in some cases it cannot be remedied with ‘more speech’. At the same time, I have serious reservations about allowing courts or agencies to determine the truth of campaign messages. In any event, I think false statement laws have limited effect and can only ever be enforced in a small number of cases.

It remains to be seen what will happen in the USA. Prof Hasen concludes in his paper that following Alvarezwe are likely to see more false campaign speech in elections, including some brazen lies.’ Just as Citizens United unleashed new channels for money to enter politics, Alvarez could open the door for more lies to enter campaign debate. Yet you may ask whether protecting dishonest campaign speech would really make such a difference. Given the limited enforcement of the existing state laws, the removal of the campaign speech laws may not in practice be such a great change from the status quo. If campaigners under the current rules feel free to mislead and lie, what difference will it make if those laws are struck down? The significant development would be the recognition of constitutional right to tell lies in elections, which might be taken as a signal for people to eschew certain campaign ethics. If that happens, then maybe the next election cycle really will be nastiest and dirtiest ever.

Jacob Rowbottom is a Fellow of University College, Oxford

This post originally appeared on the UK Constitutional Law Blog and is reproduced with permission and thanks.