OLYMPIA, WASH. — A law that bars political candidates from deliberately lying about their opponents is unconstitutional, a sharply divided state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Justices in the majority of the 5-4 decision said the 1999 law, already rejected by a lower court, violates free-speech rights.
"The notion that the government, rather than the people, may be the final arbiter of truth in political debate is fundamentally at odds with the 1st Amendment," Justice James Johnson wrote.
Dissenting justices called the decision "an invitation to lie with impunity."
"The majority opinion advances the efforts of those who would turn political campaigns into contests of the best stratagems of lies and deceit, to the end that honest discourse and honest candidates are lost in the maelstrom," Justice Barbara Madsen wrote.
State Sen. Tim Sheldon invoked the law in 2002 after his Green Party challenger, Marilou Rickert, distributed a flier that asserted Sheldon voted to shut down a state institution in his district. In fact, he voted against a budget that included closure of the Mission Creek youth camp, although critics said he didn't do enough to support the facility.
He filed a complaint with the state Public Disclosure Commission, which investigated and imposed the maximum fine, $1,000. By then, Sheldon had easily won reelection. The commission action was upheld in Superior Court but overturned by the appeals bench.
The commission can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or ask the state Supreme Court to reconsider, said Janelle Guthrie, spokeswoman for the state attorney general's office, which represented the commission.
"At this point we're still digesting the decision and deciding what the next step will be," she said. The commission's next meeting is Oct. 25.
Sheldon said the ruling would open the door to "all kinds of negative campaigning."
"The voters are going to be even more turned off by politics," he said. "They're going to not participate as much."
Rickert said the ruling would elevate political debate.
"People who choose to criticize the government should not live in fear that something they say may be misinterpreted or may be inaccurate unknown to them," she said. "There's always going to be disagreement. The fact that people don't need to live in fear or be called up to a tribunal, I think that should be a great relief."