Attorney general asks Washington justices to reconsider ‘false ads’ ruling

Thursday, July 2, 1998

The Washington state Attorney General's Office on Wednesday asked the state's high court to reconsider its ruling that struck down a 1984 law banning false political advertising.

The nine-member court, in a narrow majority last month, determined the law was unconstitutional because it violated the guarantee of freedom of speech. The law made it illegal for a person to sponsor, with malice, “political advertising that makes a false statement of material fact.”

The court's June 11 ruling came after allegations that opponents of Initiative 119 — a 1991 referendum to legalize assisted suicide — knowingly published false ads to defeat the measure.

The political-advertisement law allowed the attorney general, county prosecutors and private citizens to enforce the law by bringing civil actions. If the state Public Disclosure Commission sided with them, the offender could be fined as much as $10,000 for each violation and election results could be voided.

Civil liberties groups challenged the law saying it chilled political speech and usurped voters' rights to consider issues without government interference. Supporters of the law defended the measure as a barrier against last-minute false statements designed to sway election results.

The motion from the attorney general's office, if granted, would limit the application of the ruling only to ballot measures. The law would remain in effect on false statements in candidates' political ads.

—From First Amendment Center and Associated Press reports.