Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Strikes Down Law that Criminalized Making False Statements

In an interesting opinion delivered today, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down as unconstitutional a law that criminalized individuals from making false statements that related to elections.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Lucas

Chapter 56, section 42 of the Massachusetts General Laws stated that a person could be charged with a criminal offense if he or she: (1) made or published any false statement regarding a candidate for public office which was designed to injure or defeat the candidate; or (2) made or published a false statement regarding an election question which was designed to affect the vote on the question.

Brian Mannal is a state representative for the Second Barnstable District.  When he was running for reelection in 2014, the Jobs First Independent Expenditure Political Action Committee (PAC) distributed brochures discouraging people from voting for him.  The brochures criticized him for earning tax-payer dollars to represent people charged with crimes and accused him of protecting felons at the expense of families.  The criticisms were a shameful attack on Mannal’s duty to represent his clients.

A couple of weeks before the general election, Mannal filed an application for a criminal complaint in Barnstable District Court against the defendant, who was the PAC’s chairwoman and treasurer.  Mannal alleged that the defendant knowingly published false statements in an effort to defeat Mannal’s candidacy.  At a press conference announcing his application for a criminal complaint, Mannal suggested that the defendant could go to jail as a result of the brochures.

Mannal ended up winning his race by 205 votes.  Following the election, a clerk-magistrate issued a criminal complaint charging the defendant with two counts of violating section 42.  The defendant filed a petition asking the Supreme Judicial Court to declare that the statute is unconstitutional.

The Court pointed out that the right to free speech is not absolute.  For example, speech that constitutes fraud or defamation is punishable.  However, the Court said that laws prohibiting fraudulent or defamatory speech must be narrowly drawn such that they do not criminalize other types of speech.  While fraudulent or defamatory statements would fall under section 42, so too would non-fraudulent and non-defamatory speech.

The Court analyzed the statute under a legal standard called “strict scrutiny,” which means the government was required to establish that the law was necessary to serve a compelling state interest and was narrowly drawn to achieve that interest.  The Court pointed out that the a remedy to false speech already exists – the truth.  If counterspeech can rebut the false statements that are being made during the course of a campaign, the government does not need to prohibit the statements with legislation.

Ultimately, the Court concluded that section 42 could conceivably criminalize protected speech.  Therefore, the statute was in violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.  The criminal complaint that had issued against the defendant was dismissed.

Free speech is one of the most important rights in the United States.  If the government seeks to criminalize speech, there needs to be an incredibly compelling reason.  The Court was absolutely right in this case that section 42 could not be upheld.