Lies are not an acceptable way to win an election

The following commentary by Ruth Platner was printed in the Westerly Sun and is printed here with permission of the author.
It’s fair to say that most people assume there are legal consequences for disseminating vicious lies, or that repetition of such lies can be stopped. People also assume that no one writing under their own name in a blog that purports to be “news” would dare disseminate statements represented as “facts” unless they were – in fact — true. But these assumptions are false, and this combination of false assumptions can poison politics, and leave the targets with smeared reputations and without redress.

In a country that values free speech, we have set the threshold high for individuals to win suits against those who disseminate defamatory lies. Such suits – in the form of libel or slander suits – are even tougher to win if the plaintiff is a public figure, such as a person holding or running for public office. It doesn’t matter if the position is a paid public office, or one that is unpaid in a small town. The burden is still impossibly high.

A public figure who is the victim of published lies must prove, nearly without exception, that not only is the information false and defamatory, but also that the publication caused specific harm, such as financial losses. This is nearly impossible to prove.

And it is virtually impossible for a person to get a court order to stop a lie from being republished. That kind of order is called a “prior restraint” – and our First Amendment mostly prohibits such orders, and relegates us to simply trying to recover dollars for whatever harm may have been caused by the publication once it occurs.

The lack of barriers to lying and consequences for lying, coupled with the prevalence of the Internet and the ability of anyone – whether they are irresponsible, unethical, mentally unstable or even sociopathic – to start a blog and print whatever they want, about whomever they want, has unleashed monstrous behaviors. I have experienced such behaviors first hand.

I am a member of the Charlestown Planning Commission, which is an unpaid position. I am not affiliated with any political party, and I have held this elective position for 16 years, while working full-time at my regular job. For the past 21 months a blog has attacked me, almost daily, with as much force and venom as is used against national political candidates. The blog, created by leadership of the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee, has written hundreds of articles containing lies about me, other members of the Planning Commission, the Town Council, and our families.

For example, they wrote a story this month that my husband attended a meeting at Town Hall and “began screaming at town hall staff”. It was further reported by the blog that the Town was not filing a “complaint” against him for his conduct – implying that whatever he had done could be the basis for a court action against him. Sounds serious, doesn’t it? In fact, attendees at that meeting – including the Town Administrator — said no one, including my husband, had screamed, yelled or even argued. Everything in that publication – which was based on anonymous “reliable sources” — was a complete fabrication. An Internet search of my husband’s name will turn up this fabrication. Will it hurt sales of his books and maps? We’ll never know.

They wrote recently that one of the current Planning Commission members “lost” her home and thus “must move” out of Charlestown. The truth is that she and her husband sold their home in Charlestown and purchased a more expensive home in another part of Rhode Island to enable them to live closer to a family member. But now her name is on the Internet as having “lost” her home – the implication being that she was having financial and credit problems. Will that affect their future employment or credit?

The bloggers have criticized me repeatedly for supposedly taking advantage of a tax reduction program called “farm forest and open space”. This is another lie. Our farm is not enrolled in the program, we have never applied for it, and I doubt that we qualify. The program attacked by these bloggers is a great program, however, and it has helped many landowners keep their land in farming. But the attacks on me may make farmers in Charlestown who do qualify hesitate about enrolling, wondering if they, too, will become the targets of the blog’s attacks.

A discussion of the cost of community services in which I have participated is twisted by the bloggers into a false claim that I have a “jihad against families with children.” They even wrote that I would be glad to see children run over by cars.

They have written that the Planning Commission’s opposition to the so called “Dry Lands Act” is like the racism of “Governor George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door in 1963”. The Rhode Island chapter of the American Planning Association, the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, and nearly every environmental group in the state opposed the legislation. Only in Charlestown were the opponents of this legislation accused of racism.

They have written silly things such as my supposed “hatred of cats”. I love cats. But they have also made more serious false charges — such as allegations of illegal activities, tax fraud, and driving drunk. They have described my commitment to land conservation as a sexual fetish. These are just a few examples of hundreds of lies against me and others.

They have made public service so toxic that only those who are retired, or those with very secure jobs, dare run for election in Charlestown as non-Democrats. They have made a fine Planning Commissioner decide not to run again for fear that attacks on his reputation would hurt his career and ability to provide for his young family. By lying, they have deprived Charlestown of that potential and changed the future.

The issues in Charlestown are about development, natural resource protection, and even casinos. Charlestown’s public beaches, state parks, wildlife management areas, and historic mill villages are assets of importance to the entire state. The management of those resources deserves a passionate debate. I don’t expect that debate to always be friendly or even polite. I’ll accept opinions, even if rudely expressed, but slander and libel quiet all voices until all that can be heard are lies.

Using lies and smears to destroy local politicians and our families is not an acceptable way to win an election. Vicious, false attacks mean fewer good people will run for election and voters will have diminished choices and less effective representation. Voters should be skeptical of the “facts” they may read in blogs and seek out information from publications that adhere to a code of journalistic ethics. Blogs have the potential to be a lively, engaging place to read opinion and debate ideas, but facts are better found in newspapers.

Ruth Platner is a candidate for Planning Commission in the November Election