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Washington justices strike down ban on lying by politicians

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The good news is that the Washington Supreme Court is protecting free speech. The bad news is that it includes lying by politicians.

With a 5-4 vote on Thursday, the court said a 1984 state law banning false political advertising was unconstitutional. The law had made it illegal to sponsor, with malice, political advertising that "makes a false statement of material fact."Such a requirement chills political speech and "assumes the people of this state are too ignorant or disinterested to investigate, learn and determine for themselves the truth or falsity in political debate," Justice Richard Sanders wrote for the majority.

In a bitter dissent, Justice Philip Talmadge said: "Today the Washington State Supreme Court becomes the first court in the history of the Republic to declare First Amendment protection for calculated lies."

The law allowed prosecutors and private citizens to sue politicians and their campaign workers over claims made in political ads. If the state Public Disclosure Commission sided with them, offenders could be fined $10,000 for each violation and election results could be voided.

The state defended the law as a legitimate attempt to prevent last-minute falsehoods that could sway the outcome of an election.

Since the law was passed, the commission has held 17 hearings, finding violations in 13 cases and rejecting the others.

The validity of the ban reached the high court after the state alleged opponents of a 1991 ballot measure on doctor-assisted suicide violated the law by publishing a leaflet that falsely said the measure would let doctors end patients' lives without safeguards.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington said the truth of a statement cannot be known until after a law is passed. The ACLU also said that any falsehoods that damage people's reputations can be con-trolled through existing laws against defamation.

Within hours of the ruling, state authorities decided to drop 10 cases involving political advertising.

Talmadge said the ruling ignores political reality.