By J.D. Capelouto
Boston University Statehouse Program
A version of this article was published in The Lowell Sun.
A bill filed by state Rep. Colleen Garry would effectively make it illegal for a political advertisement to include any false information, will appear before a legislative committee this week, though some opponents insist the bill is unconstitutional and irrational.
The bill from the Democrat, whose district covers Dracut and Tyngsboro, is just one paragraph long. It states that “If a candidate or PAC is proven to have falsified or wrongly stated an opponent’s stand, vote and/or background” in an advertisement, the candidate or PAC must forfeit all of their funds to the state.
The Joint Committee on Election Laws will hear testimony on the bill Wednesday, along with about 30 other bills related to campaign finance.
Garry claims the bill does not violate free speech, according to a Saturday post on her official Facebook page.
“You can say whatever you want BUT if you LIE about your opponent, you have to pay for it!!” she wrote.
Constituents deserve a “clean honest exchange of information,” she wrote.
T. Barton Carter, a communication and law professor at Boston University, said Garry’s bill is “clearly a violation of the First Amendment.”
The text of the bill is too broad, he said, and attempts to clamp down on political speech, which is protected under the First Amendment. Misstating an opponent’s stance or a fact about them is not inherently illegal, he said.
Wrongful statements are so common during campaigns, he said, that “frankly, I’m not sure anyone would have political funds under this after a while.”
This bill abuses the campaign finance system in favor of incumbent lawmakers, said Paul Craney, a spokesman for Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative nonprofit.
“No one in politics supports lying,” he said. But misstatements in politics are bound to happen, he said, since “candidates’ positions are incredibly fluid; they change daily.”
Craney called Garry’s bill a “disgusting and really awful piece of legislation.”
Garry and the Fiscal Alliance have butted heads over the past several years. In 2014, when Garry was up for re-election, the group sent out mailed advertisements implying that Garry supported an increased gas tax, despite the fact that she voted against the raising the gas tax.
Some of Garry’s supporters also claimed the Fiscal Alliance misrepresented her vote on a veterans’ benefits bill to suggest she prioritized undocumented immigrants over veterans.
The Fiscal Alliance defended the mailings at the time, saying they reflected voting records and that lawmakers had a right to explain them to voters.
Garry said in the same Facebook post on Saturday that the Fiscal Alliance “makes a business out of lying to further their political agenda!!”
The Fiscal Alliance has been criticized in the past by Democrats who claimed the group abuses its 501(c)4 non-profit status to target Democratic incumbents with misleading advertisements.
Garry did not say whether the bill was a direct retaliation against the group; her office could not be reached for comment over the weekend.