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Senate passes bill aimed at punishing false election statements

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         OKLAHOMA         Libel         Mar 22, 2001    

Senate passes bill aimed at punishing false election statements

  • In an attempt to hold candidates for public office to a higher ethical standard, a lawmaker drafted a bill to punish false campaign claims.

A bill that would penalize false statements made during a political campaign passed the Oklahoma Senate on March 6 and awaits action by the House Judiciary Committee.

Under the proposed legislation, it would be a misdemeanor to knowingly prepare, disseminate or broadcast false paid political advertising, campaign material, or a letter to a newspaper. Like similar, but rare, criminal defamation statutes, the Oklahoma bill includes the judicially mandated requirement that the statement be made with actual malice — knowledge of falsity or a reckless disregard for the truth. The content of the material must relate to the “personal or political character, voting record, or acts of the candidate, or relate to the effect of a ballot measure; and (be) designed to elect, injure, promote, or defeat a candidate or to promote or defeat a ballot measure.”

An exception for “news items or editorial comments by the news media,” but does not define those terms.

The sponsor, state Sen. Jeff Rabon of Hugo, said the motivation for the legislation came from other professions, such as the insurance industry, that hold members to high ethical standards.

“Now, when there is so much on the line with political campaigns and you have political advocacy groups putting together voter guides, sometimes those guides are absolutely, blatantly false. This win-at-all-cost attitude has caused a serious problem in the ethics and the standards of elections today,” Rabon said. “It seems to me that this profession ought to have some level of accountability, the same level of accountability and standards that other professions have.”

However, Rabon admitted the bill could be used against people who were not professional politicians.

“If you are going to go public with a letter to the editor, with a pamphlet, with a scandal sheet, whatever you want to call it, you’d better have your facts straight,” he said.

Rabon said a criminal law was necessary because civil defamation was “extremely difficult to prove.”

“It’s better defined” than the civil defamation statute, he said.

(Okla. S.B. 486) DB


© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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